Readers know that we are in Italy and loving it, but my luggage never made it. Dianna’s was lost momentarily, but showed up two days after we arrived. Mine has not. It’s been a week now, and a minor inconvenience has evolved into something greater. To be sure I can buy what I need, and most of what is missing is just stuff, replaceable. But what is missing is also stuff in which I had invested time and emotional energy as I thought about buying it, wearing it, and packing it for this trip. All of that had symbolic importance beyond mere stuffness. What we wear says something about how we see ourselves, how we want others to see us, what make us feel good about ourselves. Other things among our stuff are expressions of our passions, desires, loves, hopes, delights, treasures, maybe even anxieties, fears, dislikes, enmities.
Stuff that has symbolic meaning is the key to understanding. George Carlin had a brilliant piece on stuff where he talked about the importance we attach to our stuff as we haul it around with us, treating it with religious favor. It may have been a famous comedy routine, but it also addressed an important truth because it is what underlies the emotional disorientation that people experience when they are forced against their will to be stripped of belongings. Burglaries, robberies, fires, accidents of various kinds are events in which stuff is forcibly taken from us that has important symbolic meaning for us, and it is the missing symbolism more than the physical stuff that is what causes such uncomfortable disorientation. A friend observed that such losses are made worse by the knowledge that what has been taken away was just inanimate stuff of no important symbolic value to whoever or whatever took it. It’s personally demeaning.
It’s easy to talk about the spiritual value of kenosis, to follow Merton into his hermitage, as long as it’s only as far as reading a book or going on a brief retreat. It’s harder, but not overwhelmingly so, to make a conscious decision, a free choice, to rid one’s self of selected stuff. Having the symbolic meaning of stuff forcibly taken against one’s will is another experience altogether. Those who are involved in pastoral counseling need to do more than just know this, they need to develop a keen sense of empathy (that dreadfully overused word) that gives adequate recognition of and respect for the deeper meaning of what has happened to those who have come to them for help.