How Empty Is My “Backpack” To Be?

Spring 2014 Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. 11 year old, 4th grader son comes home from school one day and asks:

“Hey Mom, do you know the leading cause of poverty in the world?”

My thinking it is a trick question gets my ego involved so rather than simply asking him to share with me what he knew the answer to be, I ponder the question for much too long and finally respond with:

“Is it a lack of education? That makes sense, right? If one is not educated well that will limit their access to a better paying job and better place to live. Many girls in our world still today are not allowed good education which is so terrible. So I think the cause of poverty is a lack of education.”

Yes, it was that lengthy of an answer that I recall well, for this exchange with my young son was one of those pivotal moments that has God prints all over it. And if you haveever been bested by an 11 year old, you can imagine his facial expression and tone voice as he responded with:

“No Mom, it is corruption. Corruption is the leading cause of poverty in the world.”

Corrupted Thoughts

He then handed me a sheet of paper to sign off on the poverty simulation that his school would experience the next day. In the following days I pondered this idea, that it is corruption, not a lack of education specifically, that causes poverty. Corruption in and of the executive branch or the governing body causes poverty of the body of the people. Yes, of course! (Okay so in total transparency we lived near the French border so I might have started singing Les Miserables in my head! “Do you hear the people  sing?…) Corruption of the executive branch corrupts the body leading to a lack of resources for all those whom make up the body.

I know this to be true within the realm of our human psychology. That when our executive center or the thinking center is distorted or corrupted, our feelings and actions follow suit, they become corrupted and we begin to fight over resources we need not be fighting over. We experience an inner depletion from fighting so hard to maintain or grow in status or position.

Negative, closed, distorted thinking produces negative feeling and negative action. Negative thinking cannot produce positive feeling and action. For instance, when we take something another says or does too personal (“personalization” is a common cognitive distortion), we tend to experience strong negative feeling and act defensively and can spend lots of ‘resources’ (emotional energy) on trying to figure out this other person’s actions. When you take something overly personal, you are misdirecting your ‘resources’ and experiencing a negative poverty. Love of the other, cooperation with each other, quickly fades away because of the original corrupted thought of personalization and triggers the defense mechanisms of our false self or ego.

Too Much to Carry

Then a memory came: Spring 2011 I am walking through the forested park, among the packs of feral dogs, to the market to figure out what we will be eating. I was a year and a half in to life in Russia and what to eat was still a struggle, for as an American I was accustomed to reliable food supply chains and good quality food. In my first 40 years of life I, thankfully, had never experienced food insecurity so I had honestly never given it much thought (other than the one time in college I paid $12 for a cantaloupe because I was too embarrassed to say I couldn’t afford!) but in Moscow it was a daily consideration. Would I find fresh milk, what protein would I find that my family could tolerate, would I have good quality produce that I could afford?

Photo by Kate Trifo from Pexels

Then one day that spring I hit the mother load of supply. The one source of protein I could tolerate was canned tuna fish but it wasn’t reliably on the shelf. Well that one day it was on sale and in stock in abundance! So being the anxious shopper that I was, I bought all 15 cans! After purchase, I put them in my backpack and realized I had all of those plus all of my other food to cart the two miles home. So with a bulging backpack and bags in each and, I headed home with a bit of a weary smile and a prayer the dogs would be otherwise occupied. About halfway home, I realized that I was not supposed to take home all the fish myself. Those cans were seriously banging against my hip bones and I did not leave any fish on the shelf for anyone else. When I got home, I immediately dropped the enormous load and checked my back. I was red and bruised all along my iliac crest. I sat there on my floor among the collection of tuna cans and other food and had a sudden awareness of the deep lack of trust that was corrupting my way of being: I needed more fish to feel secure – so I bought it all! …Wait a minute, if my memory serves me, did Jesus not do something miraculous with two fish for thousands of people?! And in that moment I wanted none of the chronic worry, I wanted to be FREE from it all. That enormously heavy backpack was simply too much for me to carry any more. I had a sense I was on the verge of a new awareness, an awakening to what I had been carrying around and the goal was no longer to build up strength to carry it but to let it go, empty it out, release it. But I did not yet know how.

Chucking the Junk

Fast forward back to the exchange with my son and the pieces of a mysterious puzzle began to take shape. In my quiet, still days in the incredible beauty and gift of Luxembourg, I started in earnest to chuck things out of my ‘backpack.’ I was awakening to this idea that the more empty that I am, the more He can fill me up and that is what Jesus was teaching when he multiplied the fishes. We are so fearful of poverty, of not having enough, of having less than others, that we accept the corruption of our human minds. But we are being spoken to by God who says we are already wholly and unalterably worthy that we can find a new type of poverty within that will heal us of the corruption of our minds and the ways of the world.

“A human being with grace is a human being who has been emptied, who stands  impoverished before God, who has nothing of which to boast…Grace does not erase our poverty; it transforms it totally, allowing it to share in the poverty of Jesus’ own immolated heart…This poverty, then, is not just another virtue, one among many. It is a necessary ingredient in any authentic Christian attitude toward life…It is no accident that ‘poverty of spirit’ is the first of the beatitudes… Only through poverty of spirit do we draw near to God; only through it does God draw near to us. Poverty of spirit is the meeting point of heaven and earth, the mysterious place where God and humanity encounter each other, the point where infinite mystery meets concrete existence.” Johannes Metz (from Poverty of Spirit, 1968).

I want to be emptied of the corruption that tells me that my possessions, my achievements, my strength, my qualities, my pride puts me in right standing in the world. I wanted to be emptied of the beliefs that say as soon as I cannot uphold those things, as soon as I lose those things, they get taken from me or I age out of them, as soon as someone comes along and accuses me or criticizes me or looks at me funny, I have lost my sense of inherent worth. That when things do not go according to my plan, that I am now no good at all, that there is something wrong with me, that I am forgotten and abandoned. The greatest corruption is the temptation to believe the lie that somehow you and I are not already inherently of worth, that we have to scramble to earn it by fulfilling a bunch of conditions. The truth is that you and I are already Beloved, we are already protected and cared for.

Most of us carry around enormously heavy ‘backpacks’ as we age, rarely appreciating we can either grow in strength to manage the weight or choose to release some of the things in the backpack we so often carry. As we age, we have put so much of what the world tells us is important into our backpacks that we can no longer pivot well when difficulty comes. This backpack begins to weigh us down so much that love has a hard time escaping through our pores. I spent much of my backpacked life on the former – if I am good enough, strong enough, courageous enough, happy enough I can manage all the weight that life throws my way! – but now it is about the latter, the letting go of myself and all I thought I was to do and be because I now know I am enough simply because God is with me. Since I began to make the connection between the ‘backpacks of tuna’ we carry and the corruption that plagues us, I have become more and more free and empty of the fallacy of ‘me.’

Find Rest

Here I invite you to meditate on the backpack that you carry and how you empty it once it gets too heavy: Do you dump it out in a fit of frustration, only to throw it all back in again? Nervously examine each of it’s contents, maybe getting stuck in sentimentality and unable to let something in it go? (This reminds me of Marie Kondo!) Maybe not willing to empty out your backpack until the time is right or once someone you love does it first or simultaneously? Maybe you are still in the first half of life having no clue what this means as you are still adding to your backpack for it gives you a sense of security and identity? And maybe even you can admit getting stuck back in an ego loop of pride saying “hey, I already do this, come check out my nice clean backpack!” I will guess that life is a beautiful long process of going in and out of adding and emptying the backpack that weighs you down. “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest in your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

We are asked to be poor in spirit (lightened of our backpacks) by recognizing our inner corruptions and taking them to the Cross for healing in a mysterious and dazzling way. You my friend, are loved and wholly, inherently worthy. You my friend, can put down that backpack that weighs you down and examine all of its contents for what is in it is corrupted and making you fall prey to lies. You my sister or brother, can kiss the feet of these difficult times, because you are between two waves and have an indwelling of presence that will keep you afloat. You my dear friend, can work to be empty and poor in spirit for Jesus is right there with you holding your hand, saying “You are my Beloved, in you I am already pleased.” When we prayerfully ask for help in emptying our backpack, we open our minds and hearts to being transformed by the Spirit of Love in a remarkable way and our center of gravity is changed.

Copyright 2020 Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett is a native born Californian (Santa Barbara to be exact!) who made her way to Iowa after earning a Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology from the University of California in 1996. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Iowa, Heidi began teaching at Drake University in 2000. That was also the year, at age 30, she was baptized Catholic alongside her first newly born son. Heidi is married to Joe and they have two sons.