December 4, 1997
Unpacking Our Baggage
My brother called the other day and asked whetherI had noticed how many people are putting things behind them andmoving on.
"Does that mean they have no baggage?" Iasked.
"Well," he said, "either people have no baggage oran invisible semitrailer is following them around."
Princess Diana was dead for three days and notonly was Elton John "putting it behind him," but he was askingeveryone else to do the same. A man murdered his wife, served half asentence, was released, and the first thing he said: "I'm puttingthis behind me." A young movie star refused to see her recent projectbecause of bad reviews: "I'm moving on, putting it behind me." Ateen-age girl, interrupted by having a baby and killing it, returnsto her prom.
How did we get from baggage carriers to home-freewithout unpacking and making sense of our interior?
I was invited to a dinner party many years ago bya brilliant cartoonist and his wife. He was celebrating a moviesequence he had done, which was considered extraordinary for itscreativity and humor. They were hosting some of his friends who werelabeled "genius" during their MIT days. I was the only non-genius atthe table. My dinner partner was a biologist who told me that seagulls can teach us much about human relationships, especially in thearea of divorce.
His thesis was simple: There is such a thing asincompatibility. For gulls, it's biological -- anything that all ofnature would accept as grounds for divorce. Gulls cannot makeexcuses. For them, incompatibility is based on basic differences thatthreaten the gull family survival -- death threats, battery andsexual abuse, deep depression.
They do not rationalize childhood trauma,permissive parents, hair in the sink, toilet paper rolled underhandversus overhand -- the disguised explanations we humans use to maskthe truer reasons.
Humans, according to my friend, can convincethemselves that petty differences represent insurmountableincompatibilities. They can also render the outrageous as trivial,and dull the painful by treating it as insignificant.
But how does one know the difference between anobstruction and an insignificant event? He said that's probably whythe marriage vow is phrased as it is: "Till death do you part." Itforces couples to give matrimony their best effort. Living a life, inother words, takes a great deal of thought.
While he was explaining his theory, I heard one ofthe geniuses say, "I wish the Jews would stop whining about theHolocaust." Since I was the only Jew at the table and I was talkingabout gulls and divorce, I had three seconds to decide what todo.
The hostess' face went pale. She tried to put thecomment behind her. And she almost succeeded. In a controlled yetfriendly voice, I made a request: "Could we back up a second here;I'd like to respond to the comment about whining Jews.
"Let's think about the Holocaust as a metaphor forthe evil that humanity, and, specifically, German humanity, iscapable of," I said, looking right into the eyes of the genius. "Doyou think, for one moment, that until we can grasp what that evil isabout that my people, who were the object of that evil, can let thatgo? And do you think we are even close to understanding that evil ifsomeone like you calls that process whining?"
And without waiting for an answer, I turned to mygull guy and asked, "If I were a sea gull and that genius was mymate, would I have grounds for divorce, based on the biologicalgrounds of attempted death do you part?"
My brother and I figured out that it's a betteridea to unpack the baggage, sort out the contents, leave the debrisbehind, and move on with what we have. Otherwise, you'll end up inthe lost and found.
Columnist Linda Feldman is the co-author of thenewly released "Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life'sWisdom" (Simon & Schuster).