There’s nothing quite like packing for a trip. No exercise exposes the soul’s varied longings quite as transparently as placing your own things in a suitcase.
Last weekend, my son graduated from college, and we made the trip to Kentucky for the event. It was a moment to savor and celebrate. Packing for it, on the other hand, was not.
It was graduation, after all. I wanted to look my best.
I tried on the suit I planned to wear and realized even on my back, it looked like it still had the hanger in it. Rifling through my closet, I learned that all of my clothes were as threadbare, ill-fitting and out-of-style as if I had pulled them from a five-dollar box at a roadside yard sale during the Reagan years.
I made a frantic trip to the mall and tried on a few things, and discovered that even in new clothes, I still looked tired and shabby.
Peering into a three-way mirror, I saw I needed not only a new wardrobe, but also different hair, 20 pounds of lean muscle, a new set of teeth and possibly a nose job. I remembered a line from a poem by W.B. Yeats: “An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick.”
I’d love to honestly report my heart is so steadfast and my sense of identity so secure that I never bother about how I look or what people think of me. I’d love to be known, even to myself, as one of those serene souls who is so centered and at rest that such vulgar self-obsession is beneath me. But alas, it is not so.
If expressing this in writing makes me seem vain and superficial and insecure, then at least my writing has the merit of accuracy.
William Faulkner (no slave to fashion) observed, “There is nothing worth writing about except the human heart in conflict with itself.” Preparing for social occasions like graduation reveals such conflict in lurid detail. We want not to care, yet we want to be admired, noticed, and yes, loved.
I survived the trip. In retrospect, I suppose I looked about as good as the average parent in attendance. More importantly, I realize not one person in attendance other than myself could have cared less what I was wearing or how I looked. All eyes were on the graduates, and I can only hope the private musings of the parents all around me were as neurotic and self-conscious as my own.
Back at home, in my normal, comfy clothes, I read the familiar words of King David in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.”
I’d love to wake every morning feeling such simple contentment. I’d love to know I’d never again have an existential fashion crisis or a moment of social anxiety.
I’d love to be always at rest, knowing I am loved supremely by a Supreme being. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.”
If I am counted as worthy by one whom I count as worthy of praise, the noise of my neurosis subsides. I am led by quiet streams and made to lie in green pastures.
I take some comfort in reading the Psalms as a whole, and in seeing that even old King David – a man after God’s own heart – did not always experience this settled serenity. His heart, like mine and like everyone’s, is a turbulent swirl of shifting wants and obsessions and neurotic self-absorption.
I think the best he could honestly say is, “The Lord is my shepherd. For now, I want nothing.” I think the best any of us can hope for is to want to want nothing. It’s a worthy hope and a daily challenge.