Note: This is the fourth of five blog posts I’m writing about the lessons I learned during my family’s 6-week road trip this summer. If you’d like to catch up, you can read my first post here, my second post here, and my third post here.
I don’t remember much from junior English in high school. We read some classics: Red Badge of Courage, Grapes of Wrath, etc. We spent entire class periods painstakingly copying pages of notes that our teacher hand wrote on the overhead projector in looping cursive.
But something I learned that year has always stuck with me. It was from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he reaches the conclusion that he can’t use travel as a way to escape his problems. He writes this arresting line:
“My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
For my fellow English nerds (or those of you who slept through junior English and would like a refresher), here’s a more full text of the quote:
“Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
This summer I traveled more than I ever have. We packed up the kids and drove across the entire United States and most of Canada. We were gone for seven weeks. I loved it.
One thing I hoped—although I didn’t dare say out loud—was that this trip would help me forget the sadness I felt over my dad’s sudden death last November. I thought, like Emerson, that national parks and beautiful seascapes would somehow magically help me move on.
And while I enjoyed every single moment of this trip and will never regret taking it, I have to admit that my old friend Ralph was right: My giant was with me every step of the way. My sadness was the one suitcase I didn’t intend to pack, but my psyche lugged it along anyway.
I didn’t open it on the trip, choosing instead to enjoy the delightful distractions of the beautiful newness around me. When I got back to Dayton, I thought, hoped, that perhaps I would never need to unpack it. I told myself I felt better. I wasn’t crying nearly as much as I was before the trip. Perhaps I didn’t even need to keep seeing Barbara, my grief therapist.
Upon reflection, I see how hard I was trying to avoid my pain. This is human. Pain sucks. It makes sense that we do everything we can to avoid it.
I’d made an August appointment with Barbara before I left, so that we could check in when I returned. As the appointment date loomed, I felt like I was bracing for a tsunami.
“I should just cancel,” I thought. “I’m doing better. I don’t need to go see her. I’m okay.”
(Note: Trying to convince yourself you’re okay is usually the best indicator that you’re not okay.)
As I drove to the appointment, I fought the urge to turn the car around.
“This is stupid. I don’t need to see her. I can still cancel. I don’t care about the no-show fee.”
(Actually, I’m a very frugal person so I really do care about the no-show fee, which is the only reason I kept driving.)
As soon as I reached her parking lot, the tsunami wave crashed over me and the sadness I’d blissfully ignored all summer rushed in.
Weeping, with my sunglasses on, I went inside her office, hoping that she’d come down with some urgent stomach flu and had to cancel all her appointments.
No such luck.
“How are you?” she asked as I sat down on her couch.
“This is the worst I’ve felt since the last time I was here!” I bawled back at her, a bit accusingly. To Barbara’s credit, she took this very well.
“Okay,” she said. “What’s going on?”
We spent the rest of our time unpacking my sadness suitcase, gently lifting out the pain I’d kept folded inside all summer, shaking out the wrinkles, holding it up to the light. It wasn’t fun, but it was what I needed to do.
I wish grief could go away with a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I wish we didn’t pack our sadness along with our passports and sunscreen. I wish I could travel forever and see new things to avoid feeling the pain of old things. But this is not the way life works.
“My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
So what are we to do, then?
Face it. Lovingly embrace it. Let the tsunami wave wash over us and realize it can’t hurt us.
Allowing ourselves to feel our pain is the only way to heal it.
So I’m connecting with people more. I’m talking with others about their losses and sharing mine. I’m thinking about my impact and getting more involved with my community. I’m inviting my neighbors over for dinner, no matter how I feel or what my house looks like. I don’t feel sad every day, but I do still feel sad, and that’s okay. The more I let myself feel sad when I need to, the less afraid I am of the sadness and the better I start to feel overall.
I was hesitant to write this blog post. Of all the lessons in my 5-part series, this one seemed like a pretty big Debbie Downer. Nobody wants to talk about grief. We prefer to share the fun parts of travel, the beautiful views, the adventures. And while all of that happened and was amazing, when it comes to the lessons I learned, this was a big one.
We can’t escape our feelings. Not even with an incredible trip.
Like that last unpacked suitcase, they will wait patiently on our closet floors for us to open them up and deal with what’s inside. And that’s actually great, because taking care of our suffering is how we take care of ourselves. Every time we do that, it helps us become more human, more connected, more whole. It helps us create lives where we no longer need to convince ourselves that we’re okay, but we truly feel and believe that we’re okay, that life is good, that we are safe and loved.
This blog post is one way I am facing my giant. I hope it helps you find the courage to face some of the difficult feelings in your life. Or maybe it just makes you feel less alone. Either way, I hope it’s helpful.
If something in this post resonated with you, I’d love for you to email me personally at [email protected]. It would be great to connect.