For our movie date night this weekend, D. and I watched Up in the Air on demand. The story line has George Clooney living out of a suitcase, with a home in Omaha that is more empty and less attractive than the hotel rooms he frequents on business travel. His character says he travels some 320 days of the year and he gives seminars using a “backpack of life” metaphor.
The movie gave me pause. The man lives a stripped-down life, empty of people but not human contact, empty of things, but still he hoards intangibles. He has a life goal of reaching 10 million air miles, he belongs to hundreds of fidelity programs (Hilton Honors points or Marriott Rewards, for example), he even has a collection of hotel keys in his wallet and frequently mistakes the one he needs. He has a certain amount of clutter, small as it may be, and comes into contact with hundreds of people daily because of his job as a professional communicator.
In his speaking engagements, the man asks the audience to imagine all of their things from little to big (knick-knacks to couches) being put into a backpack and to feel the straps dig into their shoulders. The unbearable weight of things is then compared to the unbearable weight of people as we are asked to put in our acquaintances and fill up the backpack until we get to our most significant other, and again he asks us to feel the weight.
I’m highly suggestible and participated in the imagining. While the “things” felt somewhat heavy, the people backpack was incredibly light. I do not feel burdened by the people in my life and said as much to D. He quickly reminded me: that was not the case when he met me. I suddenly remembered the dread I felt dealing with my family and friends and the incredible weight on my life they incurred, especially as I was going through my divorce. I had all of these relationships that seemed to be important but were not giving me support in return when I needed it. In fact, they were more crushing to me than the weight of actually ending of my marriage.
It took me a year or more to clean up the relationships, to learn to let go, to break up with friends. Today when I think about the people in my life and the amount of space they take, I cannot see this as a burden. I feel incredibly light and joyful when I think about putting my grandma in that backpack, or my daughter who I would carry a million miles over, joyfully, or my husband who has carried me in countless times of weakness.
I’m sometimes bothered that I have trouble building deep friendships with people and D. and I frequently discuss – why is it that no one seems to like us? Or for me – what’s my problem that I keep choosing friends who will not be available or able to help me when I need it? But the stripped-down life that we live now, knowing who the real friends are, is far less heavy than the one I lived under false pretenses six years ago.
The point of the film, for me at least, is that absence can be just as heavy as fullness. The George Clooney character was tied up in his inability to commit or settle and he had real moments of burdened pain because of these absences and superficialities. In the end, empty is just as burdensome as filled-past-the-brim.