Baggage is often used as a metaphor to describe people’s unique histories that are informing their current thoughts, behaviors, and world view. When we think of baggage in that way, we realize that everyone has baggage, because everyone has a history! In fact, if we didn’t have baggage, then we wouldn’t really have a life, so baggage can’t really be a problem. But when we talk about someone’s “baggage,” it tends not to be a good thing. So what’s so bad about baggage?
Let’s jump into this metaphor and expand on it. Baggage on the surface is really nothing more than a container for stuff. It holds your clothes, your toiletries, maybe an extra pair of shoes, and even a few souvenirs that you picked up from that trip you just took. Baggage on its own has no positive or negative connotations, rather it just exists as a container for the materials inside it.
Whenever I pack my bags for a trip, I have some things that I pack that I really love, like that really nice sweater, or my favorite pair of jeans. Then I have other stuff that I pack because I need to have it, even if I don’t love it (like my work-out shorts … ugh, I don’t want to work out on vacation, but I guess I should!). Finally, and we’ve all been there, I pack the stuff that I really hate, like that t-shirt I really don’t want to have to bring, but I forgot to do laundry and I’ve got nothing else clean! So, my baggage is full of clothes that range in how much I like them.
Our metaphorical baggage is also simply a container for your experiences and interpretations of events that make up your unique history. And they also contain experiences and interpretations, some of which you really like and some that you don’t. So your relationship baggage has your first romantic kiss (like!!) to that really messy break-up with your first love (don’t like!!). It has communication skills that you learned from watching your parents (um, mixed bag I think). Your relationship baggage is full of stuff that you have experienced or learned from past relationships that color how you see relationships today. Same goes with your work baggage, and your friendship baggage, and your health baggage, and so on.
But if baggage is just containers for all this stuff, why do people talk about baggage as if it’s a real problem? What’s wrong with baggage if A) everyone has it and B) it’s full of stuff that I love? The answer is that for every t-shirt that I really love, I probably have 5 t-shirts sitting in my bag that I don’t love and that don’t feel very good. That one over there used to be great, but now it’s a bit too tight on my midsection. And that one has a huge hole in it. Oh, and that one has the remnants of the burrito I got for lunch one time. And it’s not that I don’t have a lot of experiences that were really great, rather the ones that stung tend to stick around a bit longer and make it into my bag.
So, baggage has gotten a bad rap because baggage doesn’t solely contain positive memories and feelings. And, because the not-so-positive memories and feelings feel, well, not-so-good, we tend to try and get rid of that baggage. We run from it, we avoid it, or we try and bend and shape the world to try and make our experiences more consistent with the way we want it to be (so that I never have to put on that burrito-stained shirt again). But is it possible to accept your baggage as it is? Is there a benefit to making space in your life for both the sweet and the sour? Perhaps the Vinegar Tasters can help us answer this question.
The Vinegar Tasters is an ancient Chinese depiction of three men standing around a vat of vinegar and showing their faces as they taste the vinegar. While traditionally these three men are representative of three schools of thought in China, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, for our purposes they can be anyone. The first person tastes the vinegar and has a sour look on his face, because the baggage that he carries is full of rules of how things should taste, and this doesn’t conform. So, to him it is sour. The next person tastes that vinegar and he has a bitter expression on his face. To him, life was full of bitter experiences, and this vinegar was just another one. Vinegar isn’t sweet, so therefore it must be bitter (it’s not a great shirt, so it might as well be a burrito-stained shirt).
By contrast to the first two, the third person has tasted the vinegar and has a huge smile on his face. This person has taken his baggage and accepted the good, the bad, and even the ugly and said that his baggage is part of his life and his experience. In this way, this person was able to taste the vinegar and experience it for what it was, a unique flavor that isn’t all bad, nor all good. If you’ve ever tasted a fine balsamic vinegar, then you know that flavor. It has the sharpness of vinegar, and the refined nature and sweetness that makes it balsamic. The sweet and the sour all in one.
Perhaps shifting the way that we think about our baggage can allow us to smile a bit more as we live our lives. Baggage is not a problem, rather it’s a container for all the experiences that make up who we are as people today. By working to accept the good and the bad in our pasts, we can come to appreciate all the moments in our lives the sweet ones and the sour ones.