What’s in Your Baggage?

I have a friend who is almost as old as I am  (OK, not really. No-one’s that old). Like many older people, that means more than one relationship, more than one career, more than one “for every door that closes, another opens”.

We were talking about successful relationships for older folks a few years ago when she offered something I’d never thought about.

“It’s all about the baggage.”, she said. “Over time, we develop idiosyncrasies, stupid habits, and emotional scars just by living life. That’s the baggage. The older we are, the more baggage. The success of a relationship has to do with how our baggage fits with the other person’s baggage.”

(Yes, this column is for older people – midlife crisis and beyond. If you’re below 35, your bags are too light; this will bore you.)

Her idea is not new. There are variations from “Turn the other cheek” to “Let he without sin throw the first stone.” But the metaphor of a suitcase filled with personality quirks and rolling beside us down life’s path really brought the concept into the “now” of life into focus.

We think age brings wisdom. And in some ways it does. But it also brings side effects from all those lessons learned, some of which aren’t full of fun. They’re all part of our baggage.

Traumatized by your parents divorce? Into the bag. Got bullied in school? Into the bag. Girl/boy friend dumped you? Your skin is brown, black, or any other color than white? Into the bag. Boss took credit for your work then fired you? Into the bag. Your perfect marriage exploded? Into the bag. Have a medical problem? An obnoxious ex-spouse? An adult kid living in the basement? Into the bag. Elderly parents to care for? Into the bag.

There’s the flip side of this, too. Can an Ivy League graduate get along with a high school graduate? If you’ve had an easy time gaining success, can you identify or be patient with someone who struggles for it? You’re really good looking; can you have a relationship with someone less so – in other words, is your love more than skin deep? If she’s a neat freak, does she freak out if you leave your pants on the floor?

And, of course, the ultimate baggage: kids. Do you have kids? How old? How many? One way or another, they’re going to be part of you and your significant other’s lives. And that’s the living part. Recently, I met a widow whose stepchildren, while their father was losing to cancer, tried to get to him to reduce her nest egg. They failed, but later fought with her over household furnishings. On his way out the door with one of her favorite paintings, the son said, “See! Blood’s thicker than water!” This to the woman who had given unqualified love to all of them for over 22 years.

That’s baggage – with a capital “B”.

Some of it is BS, of course. Little Johnny getting a flag during the soccer game should not trigger an “Angry Dad” response. Failing to get a low-rate mortgage does not qualify as baggage.  Neither does getting a ticket for jaywalking.

We take our baggage everywhere we go as a late-in-life couple. It’s in the back seat when we drive, at the party when someone brings up politics. It’s in the arguments we have, the friends we choose, the enemies we make.  It’s in the way we raise our kids, treat our elders, deal with strangers, work with the neighbors. It’s even in the conjugal bed.

The thing to keep in mind, she told me, is “when you’re older and you meet someone on a website or at a party, there’s going to be baggage and it’s going to be big. When you’re younger, it’s small and easy to manage. Not so when you’re our age. The key is to recognize when two sets of baggage won’t fit together well.”

(Did I say I was older? Sorry. She must be. By a lot. As you can see from her wisdom.)

Once you decide the baggage fits, how to avoid problems with someone you like? She brought up another old adage: “Perfect is the enemy of good”.

Or you can just stay home alone and watch old TV shows.

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