Bags Without People: Making Sense of a Personal Life

On the way.

On the way.

A couple of years ago, at the end of a long period of studies, two friends and I rented a small cabin in the woods. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to a place we had seen once in a music video. The song was about friends moving apart, about being far from family, and about the desire to find ourselves eventually reunited. It was about the pain of leaving, the lengths we go to in order to be with the ones we love, and the longing we feel when we can’t. The song was performed acoustically at sunset on a point overlooking a small bay and a few distant islands. It seemed a fitting place for us at the time so we went there to spend a few days together as we prepared to move on with our lives.

We were on the ferry out to the San Juan Islands at the northern end of Puget Sound when one of us smiled and pointed out a public safety poster: “Bags without people don’t make sense.” After a few years in philosophy studies a sentence like that seemed humorous to us. We read the sign and snickered. A bit punchy after a long day of travel we repeated the phrase in a kind of ‘you-ain’t-from-round-here-is-you’ drawl. “Bags without people? Don’t make sense.

I’m not sure why but it just seemed funny at the time. Perhaps it struck me because my companions had just helped move most of my belongings from Chicago to Seattle by checking extra bags on our flight. In my case ‘bags without people’ would’ve been an expensive pain in the ass.

What the security signage means to say is that unattended bags (the more familiar phrasing of ‘bags without people’’) are suspicious objects and, as we all know, when you see something suspicious you should say something. I’m certainly no security specialist, but there is wisdom in these words. See something. Say something. Things without people don’t make sense. Truth.

My friends and I were in transition. We were moving to three different cities to live what we had always shared but failed to notice: three different lives. After a few years of seeing each other constantly we weren’t sure when we would see each other again. We felt the pain of leaving because we knew enough to understand that to live without people, especially without friends, well, that don’t make sense.

***

Over the holidays I often run into old friends and family members with whom I was once close. But now we live at some distance from each other, geographic or otherwise. When we get back together it’s always a strange mix of familiarity and longing, of gratitude for deep personal intimacy and nostalgia for something distant, something past. In between these conflicted feelings I find myself figuratively, if not literally, in a process of homing – drawing nearer to my center. It’s a place of many knotted paths. Whether home-coming or home-leaving there’s always an invitation to a deepened sense of self and its web of desires, its history and its hopes.

This home-going also involves a complex web of transportation. One’s sense of self has an entirely different meaning during a TSA pat down, but, even there, I wonder. In the post 9/11 era we’ve supposedly become more vigilant, watchful. I wonder if we’re actually being watchful or something closer to suspicious. Do we know more about our neighbors or do we hold them at a greater distance? Do we know more about what threatens us? Are we safer? Considering the ongoing acts of indiscriminate violence at home and abroad, I think we’re right to wonder. I also think that the answer to senseless violence involves the risk of intimacy – drawing closer to strangers and perceived enemies, attending to the difficult, the disordered and the depressed among us.

I wonder if more than security what we really need is intimacy. More than suspicion we need watchfulness. More than caution we need care. More than privacy we need a personal sense that we’re not alone, a sense that we can entrust our lives to other people. There’s a difference between watchfulness and suspicion, just as there’s a difference between personal and private, intimacy and tolerance, or caution and care. Suspicion makes me nervous. Watchfulness makes me grateful.

I’m well beyond the checkpoint now. But the wisdom still applies: I see something. I say something. Without people it makes no sense.

***

I’m home at the university again and classes begin this week. There are risks in this place too. Big ideas are everywhere while authentic personal relationships can be hard to find. Intellectuals tend to hold everything at an analytic distance. (For the record, analysis literally dissolves or loosens something. Not great for friendships.) We must be personal, allowing who we are to inform what we think and how. Any meaningful insight has the person as its principal geography and every big idea ought to have love as its object. Words without deeds convey nothing of substance. Ideas alone don’t deliver the goods. Reality matters. Truth makes a difference.

This is not to diminish the value of words or ideas or even a nicely designed and well-traveled piece of luggage. This is just to say that apart from our becoming more deeply human, more personal in our relationships, we’re really not engaged in anything of substance. Or, at least, nothing I’m interested in.

I often have to explain my Jesuit life by saying that it really makes no sense without God. This is true. But it’s also true to say that it is a life like any other, like God’s own life, a life of love. And if the Christmas holiday we just celebrated reminds us of anything it ought to remind us that for us, as for God, a life without people makes no sense at all.

***

The cover image, from Flickr user Lotus Carroll, can be found here.

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