I have an antique wooden shoeshine box. My cousin made it when he was ten, in 1926. He was old enough to be my father in the cross-generational family I come from. He gave the box to my mother at some point and I became its ultimate guardian. I cleaned it out the other day as I was polishing my shoes. I began to think, if I were to lose almost everything I owned, what would be important to keep? The shoeshine box was the first of few items on the list. Among its contents are my father’s polish applicators; they must be at least seventy years old. Only the brushes and the polishes are mine – and the brushes are at least thirty years old.
Little things bear big memories. My nightstand, for example, has a drawer where I keep my treasured little books. One of them is The Way of A Pilgrim, a small paperback I’ve kept next to my bed for forty years. The shoeshine box is a little thing that opens a big box of memories.
When I go to that shoeshine box, the memory of my father becomes vivid. He died in 1956, when I was a teenager. One of his big values was shined shoes. He had lost big in the Great Depression, and he used to say, “If you’ve got a shine on your face and a shine on your shoes, people won’t notice the shine on the seat of your pants.” Good advice for a time of deprivation.
More important than the memories, however, is the awareness that I was somebody before the accumulations of an adult lifetime. All my possessions fit inside a small footlocker when I went off to college many years ago, with the exception of the banjo I carried on my back. Could I return to this diminished status and be happy? I think so. The message in this reflection is that all of us could reduce our possessions by large amounts and remain content. In fact we might become more content because we would have less to worry about. I ask myself the question, how much of what I have do I really need?
You see how reflection on a shoeshine box moves in a straight line to questions about my present wellbeing. Surely you have had similar experiences, especially as you’ve gotten on in age. We carry baggage with us like so much excess, and often we can simply drop a lot of it and move on more swiftly and more sure-footedly.
Now turn the experience one more time. What mental and emotional baggage do we need to drop, in order to achieve peace of mind? What offers of forgiveness do we need to make, or receive, that would bring us equilibrium?
Sometimes it is not possible to retrace our steps to receive or offer that forgiveness; but we can still experience a release from the constraints such moments place on our lives. To err is human; to forgive is, indeed, divine.
Here’s the kicker: emotional and mental baggage blocks us from dumping physical baggage. We used to joke about how, when people were emotionally down, they’d shop. Not far from the truth, is it? Look at the things you got because you needed to fill in a hole in your soul.
When you forgive, you don’t necessarily forget; that’s not part of the equation. But the forgiveness is. You need to do it to unload your burdens as much as you need to do it for the sake of the other person. Now just look at where looking at a little thing like a shoeshine box can lead you.