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ValueSpeak: Memory’s rocky road

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Not too long ago my 60-something friend Curtis was asked to help supervise a Cub Scout hike. Soon after the hike began, one of the Cubs — 8-year-old Josh — started shadowing Curtis, and the two quickly became good friends.

Josh talked about everything and anything along the trail, including a few things his mother probably would have preferred that he hadn’t mentioned. But mostly Josh talked about rocks. Big rocks or little rocks, colorful rocks or plain rocks; it really didn’t matter. Josh just loved rocks. He especially loved to collect rocks. Every time he saw an interesting specimen he would pick it up, examine it carefully, declare it to be “awesome” and stash it in his backpack.

This continued through the hike until Josh could barely keep himself from falling over backward due to all of the extra weight he was carrying. Curtis could see that Josh was struggling with his load but said nothing. He wanted to see how Josh would handle the situation.

The inevitable confrontation with reality came when they started up an especially steep incline. Josh tried to follow his friends up the hill, but he was struggling under the extra weight he was carrying. Tired and frustrated, he leaned against a tree and pulled off his backpack.

“Curtis,” he said, “my pack is getting awfully heavy. Will you carry it for me?”

Curtis could have done so. In fact, that was his first impulse. But somehow it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Instead, he suggested that Josh take all of the rocks out and lay them on the ground so he could look them over and decide which ones to keep and which to throw away.

Josh didn’t think much of the idea.

“Throw them away?” he exclaimed, huge tears forming in his eyes. “I can’t throw them away! They’re special rocks — all of them!”

Curtis put an arm around Josh and hugged him for a moment.

“They are special,” he agreed, “but they are also heavy. And I can’t carry your pack because one of the reasons Cub Scouts go on hikes is to help them learn to carry their own packs up tough trails. So it wouldn’t be right for me to carry it for you, would it?”

“I guess not,” Josh said, sniffling. Slowly he began sifting through his rocks, selecting only the best ones to keep. Painfully, and with some ceremony, he discarded the rest.

And you know what? He survived.

In a way, we’re all kind of like Josh. We move through life gathering all kinds of rocks — physically, mentally, emotionally — dutifully stuffing them into our psychological backpacks. Only occasionally, when we find ourselves overwhelmed by the load we’re carrying, do we take the time to sift through our respective backpacks and choose which experiences, attitudes and perspectives to hang on to and which to leave behind.

But perhaps that’s an exercise we should undertake more often. Though there is much we can and should learn from the past — both the glorious and the inglorious — it can also weigh us down and make it difficult to move forward. By choosing to carry the full weight of every steppingstone and stumbling block we encounter on our journey through life, we give inordinate power to the past and dissipate the energy we should be focusing on the only two phases of our existence that can actually be altered: the present and the future.

This isn’t to say that the past should be ignored; only that it should be kept in its proper place. If the present is the road we travel today on the way to the future, then the past is a rearview mirror at which we should occasionally glance, but not stare. As clergyman Joel Osteen has said, “The reason the windshield is so large and the rearview mirror is so small is because what’s happened in your past is not nearly as important as what is in your future.”

Especially if it weighs you down like a backpack full of rocks.

To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr