Zen and the Art of Purse Maintenance: Goodbye Athletic Cups and Popsicle Wrappers

unpacked purse

I have had sciatica for about a year now (pain originating in my lower back and extending down my left leg to my knee). It is not debilitating and sometimes I don’t even notice it, however at other times it flares up to the point of waking me in the middle of the night. I have tried exercise (I’m a long time yoga bear and runner), no exercise (hey, worth a try), acupuncture, ibuprofen, aspirin, massage, and meditation, among other things, and yet it stubbornly lingers. Yesterday I came out of my acupuncture appointment and as I was walking to my car I shifted my purse onto my shoulder. Zing! Hello sciatica.

Aha! Had I finally zeroed in on the culprit? I had actually considered the purse problem months ago. I downsized (giving me an excuse to buy a cute new purse) and streamlined. Only the most necessary items would go in. It felt great. I felt organized and light on my feet. However in the intervening months things got added back in, quite without my noticing. I don’t want to speak for all women, but I do think some of us have a tendency to literally carry the baggage of those around us, most especially our children. Why am I carrying my son’s athletic cup?! Because he takes it off the moment he steps off the field and is too embarrassed to carry it himself. Maybe my back hurts clear down my leg because I have inadvertently taken on his, and others’, issues. I am carrying his potential embarrassment, my daughter’s hearing (batteries for her hearing aids), and any number of other insurance policies (credit cards, bandaids, Kleenex, Immodium, Advil, flossers, pens, note pads, phone charger cords).

over full purse

We all (well, most of us) accumulate. We accumulate clothes, newspapers, mail, pounds.

And we accumulate ideas. We take in beliefs of those around us (first our parents, then our peers, teachers, neighbors, then inevitably, the Kardashians) and they keep building up in our brains just like the stuff we bring into our houses or purses.

And we also accumulate pain. Just like I’ve been willing to hold other people’s stuff in my purse, I have also been willing to hold other people’s pain in my brain. This made me a good living for a while, there is an entire, honorable, profession that does this. A good therapist is not afraid of her client’s pain. We can sit with it together, we can share it, we can find a way through it. The brave clients are willing to feel this pain, look at what is causing it, make sometimes hard changes and get through it. This is a noble endeavor. And it isn’t limited to a therapist-client relationship, this is also an example of friendship at its best. This, however, is different than someone dumping his/her pain on you and running away, like shoving their sticky popsicle wrapper in your purse. “Here, I can’t handle this so I’m dumping it on you. You do something with it. Let it mess up your life with worry.” Without meaning to, sometimes we accept those sticky popsicle wrappers and let them clutter up our lives.

My brain is still wired to respond to other people’s pain, to take it in, consider it, try to ameliorate it. In many situations, this is a good thing. But like my purse full of my kids’ stuff, I may be holding on to some pain that isn’t rightfully mine, and that I can do nothing about. I had a roommate once who was in a bad relationship. And I listened to her complain about him over and over. And I worried, and I felt sad for her, and I tried to offer advice. Nothing changed. And finally I realized that every time she complained to me about it and I sympathized, it gave her enough relief that she didn’t have to actually deal with the problem with him. Once I told her that I couldn’t listen anymore, that I would talk about anything else, I would go out with her, I would support her in any other way, but that I wouldn’t talk about him, it wasn’t long until the sh*t hit the fan and they broke up. As long as I kept carrying her pain for her, she was free to do exactly nothing about it.

Which brings me back to carrying stuff for my kids. Oh how so many of us want to make our children’s lives pain free! Why? Because it hurts us when they hurt. We don’t allow them any discomfort at all, not even the (minor) embarrassment of carrying an athletic cup. Not even the (very slight) weight of carrying their own phone in their pocket, or the fear they might lose the phone. But here’s the thing, if we are not able to tolerate their embarrassment or anxiety, how will they ever learn to?

Which leads me to one of the beliefs that I had accumulated but am getting rid of. “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child.” It makes sense when you hear it but the more I thought about it, the more trouble I had believing it. In fact, I would argue that if we really love that child the best thing we can do is stay in the light. Me being sad or upset does nothing to help my child feel better, it just adds another unhappy person to the world. And my sadness makes me less able to listen to my child’s sadness because sadness brings a self-focus, it has now become about me too. It is not disloyal to be happy when someone you love is sad, you can still be compassionate and supportive and bake them homemade cookies. In fact, if you persist in what I call a stubborn faith in happiness you have a chance to bring them back to the light. Because the research has shown, over and over, that moods are contagious. A house full of unhappy moods only breeds more unhappy moods.

So I have been doing a little Spring Cleaning for my purse and my brain. I’m not sure how many people still follow the ritual of Spring Cleaning but the genius of it is its regularity. Like church once a week reminds you of God, like the JiffyLube sticker that reminds you to change your oil, the beauty of Spring Cleaning comes with the Spring part of the phrase. We forget, but our calendar can remind us to clean out. I dumped out the purse and picked up each item, one at a time, looking for the belief attached to it. Why was I carrying it? Who was I carrying it for? What would happen if I didn’t have it?

From now on, around here people will be carrying their own athletic cups and disposing of their own sticky popsicle wrappers. My job is to figure out what is reasonable for me to carry and what is not.   To purge myself of beliefs that no longer work for me. And to pursue happiness with a vengeance, because I want my contribution to the mood contagion to be more Pooh Bear, less Eeyore.

I would like to think that it won’t take me another year of back pain to remember to clean out the house and brain on a regular basis, but then again, like Pooh Bear, I am a Bear of Little Brain.

And now, I am also a Bear of Little Purse.

smaller purse