Repacking Your Bags

I travel often enough these days to be very conscious about what I am carrying. Lessons learned by the inconvenience of a heavy bag, taught me to travel light, and always remember when I am packing my bag – less is more. I remember traveling in Europe a few years ago watching three American couples, who obviously were traveling together, attempt to board a train in Amsterdam with a set of enormous duffle bags. They were packed to the point of bulging and we stood by as they were straining to lift these heavy bags up the steps of the coach. The conductor was growing increasingly irritated. I suppose I felt a little smug stepping around them with my small, lightweight, efficient bag. Arrogance is short-lived in travel, however. We all remember times when we wished we prepared differently for circumstances we didn’t fully understand.

That situation reminded me of a book I read years ago, Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life (1996). It’s a fun read offered by Richard Leider and David Shapiro. Leider tells a story I have remembered to this day. Its image is a powerful one. Leider had some years earlier ventured off on a backpacking trek through the Serengeti Plains in East Africa. His group was led by a Maasai guide named Koyie, who had been educated in a missionary school and was a leader among his people. Leider notes he had purchased a quite impressive backpack for the trip with every feature one could imagine. He writes:

As we walk along, Koyie keeps glancing at my pack. Time and again, I see him mentally comparing the heavy load I carry with his own, which consists of nothing more than a spear and a stick used for cattle tending. Eventually we get to talking about my backpack, and he expresses his fascination with seeing its contents. Pleased at how impressed he appears to be, I offer to show him my stuff. I look forward to letting him see how carefully I’ve prepared for our journey and how ready I am for anything.

The opportunity presents itself late that afternoon as we are setting up camp near another “boma” (a collection of small huts). Proudly, I commence to lay out for him everything in my pack. I unsnap snaps, unzip zippers, and un-Velco Velcro. From pouches, pockets, and compartments I produce all sorts of strange and wonderful items. Eating utensils, cutting devices, digging tools. Direction finders, star gazers, map readers. Things to write with and on. Various garments in various sizes for various functions. Medical supplies, remedies and cures. Little bottles inside little bottles inside little bottles. Waterproof bags for everything. Amazing stuff!

At length, I have all the gear spread out. It looks like that photo they always have in the centerfold of the great explorer article that shows everything necessary for a successful trip to the farthest reaches of the planet. Needless to say, I’m pretty satisfied with my collection.

I look over at Koyie to gauge his reaction. He seems amused, but silent. I understand. Surveying the items arrayed about us, I don’t know quite what to say, either.

Finally, after several minutes of just gazing at everything, Koyie turns to me and asks very simply, but with great intensity:

“Does all this make you happy?”

We all reach certain points in life when we take an inventory. It’s the equivalent of unpacking the heavy backpack to see what we are really carrying. Often we are surprised by what we see. There are things we should have left behind long ago. There are things not as important as we once imagined. More importantly, we ask ourselves what we really should be carrying for the rest of the journey.

Perhaps the most meaningful discovery is that through the course of life we need bags of varying size to meet our needs at particular times. The demands of college, early career, growing family, late career and retirement each imply the need for a different bag. I have to admit that sometimes the simplicity of a spear and a stick sounds really appealing. Yet, it may be more important to have the right bag for the right season of life. The key is to never overpack.


About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



11 responses to Repacking Your Bags

Don Huffman says:

Travelling light is indeed a skill valuable to each of us as we consider the basic necessities for either foreign travel or travel through one’s professional life.
As one approaches the latter days of one’s professional life it becomes important to consider the necessity of “travelling light” in the role with former or newer colleagues or friends. Confusing as it may be, the reality is that these colleagues may not hunger for the same insights which have been a part of our professional backpack. It is important to recognize that even though the information we possess is in fact very significant to us, it is important that our colleagues also hope to travel light, and may not value our “essentials” as critical for their travel loads.
It helps to “know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em,” if one is to be a happy player in the game of professional life, or in travel to other country/cultures.

There is something about Japanese aesthetics that appeals to me–simple, ordinary beauty with a great deal of space. I experience breath, presence, and being alive without all the distraction and stimulation of stuff! Perhaps there is a message about life and death in this.

W. K. Bill (Jake) wehrell says:

Unfortunately, it is usually not until our final years, or in the face of an unexpected personal or loved one’s terminal health issue, that we can shake our head and find it so easy to discard the weight of the previously borne and valued life concerns of status and possessions.

Don Huffman says:

I agree that it is often late in our final years that we can shake our head and find it possible to discard the weight of previously borne and valued items. However, it is certainly an ideal to be gained if possible, and it can make life worth living and work worth doing.
Don Huffman

Valerie Van Kooten says:

This reminds me of the flip side…something my mother always said: that as parents, we pack a lot of our children’s “bags” for them. Much of what they will need later in life comes from how well the parents packed. Children may be able to pick up things their parents didn’t pack, but again, they may not.

The responsibility for parents to pack the tools of self-esteem, hard work, faith, loyalty, and compassion is a serious one. It is also a grave responsibility for parents to see what baggage they may be adding to their children’s lives that they will have to “shuck” later.

Mara Egherman says:

Nicely put, Val. Good to remember both as parents and as educators.

Marty vandenHerik says:

Mark’s insights and subsequent comments got me considering physical, professional, and emotional possessions. As a husband and parent these possessions have changed and become more complicated- it’s not just my “stuff” anymore. Much like cleaning a desk (computer files, home, or contact list) reviewing “what I am carrying” has therapeutic and practical value. Fewer things allow one to assess and focus on priorities. In my experience, discarded professional and physical possessions can be a reflection of life stages, physical growth, changing fashion, and geography. Emotional possessions are the most difficult to discard because they involve dealing with life values, insecurities, and our esteem constructs. This exercise can be difficult and sometimes painful- but certainly insightful and necessary for life progress.

Joan Wierenga says:

Jake, while I agree that it often takes a life-changing event or the progression to later, more experienced years of life for us to shed the excess “baggage” we’ve been carrying, I disagree with your choice of the words “so easy to discard.” In my 50 years of life, which have included life-threatening health issue, I’ve found that discarding/downsizing, though beneficial & necessary, has ALWAYS been difficult.

Don Huffman says:

You’ve made a good point. I too have found it difficult to discard or downsize “excessive baggage,” for health, or likely any other important event in one’s life experiences. Part of this may be one’s personal attachment to these items, but the other certainly is because these do have great importance to one; ie, health issues, or probably many other items as well.
Don Huffman

Kae Speed says:

Dr. Putnam, that is a very interesting insight! It reminds me of how much I packed for my freshman year four years ago…we had to rent a van to get everything up to Central. Since then, and since living in Wales, I’ve learned to take what is necessary, take what is meaningful, and the rest can stay in storage. I think this year the only reason I’ll need a van is because I’ve acquired a futon 😀

It also brings to mind cutting down in general, whether it be snack foods, clothing I’ll never wear, books I’ll never read, and movies I haven’t seen in years.

Don Huffman says:

In response to your thoughtful remark about simplicity as a virtue in many aspects of life, I totally agree. In some families and offices it becomes more complex, because each different personality ultimately formulates a policy with which they are comfortable. This multiplies the issues as one attempts to live simply but finds others may not fully agree with this idea. My experience with “hoarders” at home and elsewhere is that they seldom simplify their lives until they are living alone.
Don Huffman