What’s In Your Backpack?

by Jim Hassett, MA, LLPC

At the all-male high school where I am a counselor students hardly use their lockers. Instead, they carry their books around with them all day long in huge over-stuffed backpacks making the hallways at class exchange look like some sort of training camp for Sherpas. Seniors are the worst. They come to my office to talk and sit on the edge of the chair in order to accommodate the two foot protrusion jutting from their backs. “Dude,” I’ll say, “take your backpack off!” It takes them a few moments for them to comprehend what I am asking (think Igor in Young Frankenstein: “What hump?”). They are so accustomed to carrying around these weights (fifty pounds is not unusual) that they forget they are even there. When they finally wriggle out of the straps and let their load slip
to the floor I’ll ask, “How does that feel?” (which is really a stupid question to ask adolescent boys who are genetically hot-wired to answering “good” to any question dealing with personal feelings or inquiries about their day). “Good,” they’ll say. But no matter, they don’t have to answer. I can see it in their face and shoulders: they are relieved, relaxed.

Here is a conversation I had the other day with a freshman:

What’s the heaviest book you have in your backpack right now?
–My American History book. It weighs a ton.
–What period do you have history?
–2nd period.
–This is period 5. Why are you still carrying it?
–I don’t know. It’s easier, I guess.
–Take it out for a minute and put your backpack back on. Tell me how it feels.
–A lot better.

One thing I do like about those backpacks, they provide an easy segue and ready
metaphor for talking about the interior life. To the freshman:

“So,  what’s in your ‘inner backpack?’ What’s weighing you down? What’s cutting into
your happiness or effectiveness? Is there anything you are carrying around with  you that you would like to put down but don’t know how or even think you can?  Maybe there’s an American history book in there — something you need but don’t always have to carry; maybe there is a bunch of junk you’ve picked up along the way that needs to go –ideas about success, for example, or self-worth, or what or who needs to change in order for you to be happy. One of the roles of counseling is to help you sort through that stuff. But for that, you need to risk a conversation. You want to talk?”

* * *

St.  Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century founder of the Jesuit order — the  order of priests that run the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy where I am a school counselor — would tell his brother priests something like this regarding the things we carry: If a little voice inside you says “No way am I going to share ‘that’ with anyone — that shame or guilt or infidelity or addiction or obsession or sorrow or disordered desire or
whatever” — go run and tell somebody fast! For that voice is not coming from a place of light or healing, but rather from a place of darkness and bondage.”

So, if you are carrying the weight of something unspoken, consider speaking with someone — a counselor, a trusted friend or spiritual advisor. We have plenty  of  metaphoric language to suggest the relief it can bring: “Boy, it felt so good to get that load off my back.” “It was nice to unload.” “What a burden I’ve been carrying.” “That talk really lightened the load.”

But for that, you need to risk a conversation.


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