Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
October 2015 - Volume 15, No. 10
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The Suitcase Packed in the Closet

Someone once penned “Beware the passing of Jesus, for he may come by here but once.  I searched online for a reference, but to my amazement could find nothing, even after trying a number of Internet search engines. I do recall it’s not actually Christian tradition, and definitely not in canonical Biblical literature. But it has situated itself in the back closet of my mind for many years now, a gem of wisdom that shows up in my consciousness every once in awhile.

And it pairs nicely with the leitmotif of all my Newsletters - Pay Attention.

The Suitcase

More recently in my work I’ve been coming up with the image of a suitcase, fully packed and ready, sitting back in one’s closet, waiting for that moment when perhaps at a moment’s notice it’s time to move on.

In the natural world, when an particular signal arises, animals and peoples will pick up and move. It may be a human tribe moving to winter grounds. Or animals fleeing a fire or storm or approaching enemy. It’s often called “migration” - becoming a study for natural scientists or anthropologists. In our world of today, we’re witnessing the desperate migration of thousands of refugees fleeing terrors of the Middle East toward hopeful sanctuary in Europe and beyond. Many among us got here this way.

But in the human world, there’s also another force - inertia. Inertia can often trump even desperation.  It’s easier to stay put, no matter what’s going on around us. Sometimes we’ll call it procrastination, sometimes denial. Sometimes laziness or stubbornness. It can be the ostrich’s head buried in the sand, pretending invisibility. Fear has the power to completely disable us. Often it’s the loss of any and all hope. These are primarily traits of the human world more than the natural world.

That’s why I sometimes encourage the fully prepared suitcase - perhaps hidden in a back corner, but ever fully accessible.

Somewhere I have heard:

If I have only one choice - I’m a prisoner.
If I have two choices - I’m in a dilemma
If I have three or more choices - I can begin to know the freedom of being a human being. The suitcase can add one more active prepared choice, one more existential paradigm of human freedom.

At the right time

Move on, commit, let go, “(when one) dares cut the rope and be free” (Zorba). So much of our literature celebrates that moment, that switch in the drama when something new emerges - perhaps hope, resolution, forgiveness, freedom, redemption.

Sometimes ‘it’s always been there’ waiting for the moment we’re ready to open our eyes. This is a frequent pattern in psychotherapy - sometimes called a gestalt.

But more often it’s keeping our eyes open so that at the right time… Jesus in the gospels frequently warns his people that the coming of the Kingdom will be “like a thief in the night.”  Hence the “beware” and the “but once” of the warning. It won’t be found on a railroad timetable (that dates me!) or in the TV Guide.

The Freedom of being Always Packed and Ready

Freedom in the human world is also the freedom to do wrong, the freedom to do injury, the freedom to disobey, (and in the Judaeo-Christian tradition) the freedom to sin. It can also be the freedom to run away from responsibility or accountability (hallmarks of mental and community health). Those things are always possible, and sometimes even necessary.

It’s also the opening of a freedom from anxiety. Perhaps the freedom to leaving a place of oppression or enslavement. The ‘survival of the fittest’ (often called The Law of the Jungle) is an appropriate principle in the natural world, where the natural order of things involves an overarching balance. But in the human world, the ‘survival of the fittest’ is antithetical to human freedom. In my awareness, most if not all mature spiritual traditions and/or communities, espouse “freedom” as the ground by which all persons or being are honored and protected. This is a freedom that despises nobody, or any part of the created world.

For example, freedom from anxiety is not meant to just pass anxiety on to others as we leave it behind. Freedom from anxiety is also a gift for others to share. Freedom from anxiety is not meant to just benefit pharmaceutical profits.

The ready suitcase is not primarily for just survival, it represents a deeper freedom for others as well.   

This can also speak of our death - the difference being that at death we take nothing with us. We are born with nothing, and we die with nothing. In between we can gather so much that we become slaves to it - our possessions, things, wealth, our “stuff.” Perhaps if we can eventually pare it down to the contents of a single suitcase, we can regain that lightness of being which I believe was a part of our birthright.

Possessions - Traveling Light

We were not born to be tied down to our possessions. I like an idea Michael Meade presents in one of his published CD presentations ( He suggests that we spend the first half of our life accumulating possessions and wealth. Then we spend the second half giving it all away; doing it in a way that benefits others, that supports the community.

The suitcase is not meant as an container for storage, it’s meant to carry only articles to accompany a journey.

The story goes that an American couple were traveling in Europe, and included in their itinerary searching out a wise and renowned old Rabbi who lived deep in the woods, a day’s drive from Warsaw. Upon finally finding him, they were greeted warmly and led into his single room dwelling. Looking around he showed them his bed, a chair, a table and a few utensils. “But where” they asked him “is your stuff?” He  responded, “Well, where is your stuff?” “Oh, we’re just passing through” they responded. “So am I” was his response.

Less stuff - the zen of packing the suitcase

Preparing the suitcase can itself be an intentional act of separating out the essential from the non-essential of one’s habitation. In my father’s early Methodist preacher days, we would often move every year or two (at least until I was in Jr. High School). Every time we moved, we knew in another year or two we would probably undergo the same ritual. Somewhere he picked up the saying, ‘Five moves is equal to one fire’ (i.e. in the amount of ‘stuff’ removed).

Having a packed suitcase in the closet is itself the result of much personal introspection. It speaks of the work of life, not just the work by which we earn our living, but the work by which we constantly nurture and defend our freedom. It is by this freedom that we stay alive, stay awake, and constantly pare down. And when a singular moment comes in which we may be called to a higher level of human freedom - we are prepared to respond.

It may take courage. Others may be watching, perhaps even follow us. Perhaps we have prepared for a number of years, or over a lifetime. Perhaps it comes as a complete surprise.

But there in the back of the closet (and closets are never locked), there is that suitcase we have prepared - ever ready for a journey when the time might come.

And in the meantime, it’s ours to ever

Pay attention

Comments (1)

  • Harrumph

    Well wise guy, you are right! My suitcase is packed. I need to just stop packing a sea of suitcases to take to the station.

    — Cynthia, 10/1/2015

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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