This week hundreds of thousands of Canadian children will make their way back to school. Thousands of teachers, including our daughter and son-in-law, Kaitlyn and Matt, will do the same. Many of the children will be wearing a backpack, bringing to and from school their possessions. Anyone who has gone to school can almost hear the sighs of relief when those students arrive home and are able to take off their packs.
Last week our son, Greg and his new wife Cara completed their honeymoon-style canoe trip. Parts of it involved portaging and they too had to wear backpacks to carry their possessions. They were talking about how great it felt when they were able to lay their backpacks down at the end of each portage.
I didn’t have a backpack when I was a student but I sure do remember the great feeling of laying down my pile of books and other possessions when I arrived home. What a relief.
In the case of students, mostly their backpacks are filled with books, newsletters, lunches, sweaters, and extra shoes. In the case of canoeists, the backpacks contain sleeping bags, food and first aid kits. All these things are easy to lay down.
When I was a teacher, I always imagined that the children brought other things to school with them in their backpacks. I imagined that they brought their hopes and dreams. These would likely be easy to carry. I imagined they brought their worries and fears. These no doubt were heavier. I also imagined they brought the invisible things that had happened in their homes in the hours before school began each day. For some students these invisible things would remove some of their weight, making their packs seems lighter; for others it would add an immeasurable load. These invisible items are much harder to lay down when the backpack is taken off.
In my classroom, before I started every single class, I would stand at the front of my classroom, quietly smiling at the students, and wondering to myself, “I wonder what each of these students has brought with them today?” It was never my goal to add to the weight of their imaginary load; it was always my goal to decrease it. I wanted them to feel like my classroom was a place they could remove their heavy load.
I don’t stand in a classroom and have this thought anymore. This week though, it has dawned on me that this should be a thought I have every time I pick up the phone, answer the door, buy groceries, attend a meeting, meet a friend, drive my car or simply go about my daily life.
Every person we meet in this world is carrying around their own invisible backpack. We cannot see inside it, but we can certainly imagine the possible contents. Each of us carries our hopes and dreams, our disappointments and failures, our fears and rejections. Each of us also has the power to influence the contents of the backpacks of others. We can add to the burden of weight by our criticism, exclusion, and thoughtlessness.
We can also lighten the load of our fellow travellers by adding kindness, inclusion, encouragement and thoughtfulness. Each of our little actions either adds to or lessens the weight of the packs that are carried by those we come into contact with. We can make our presence be a place where people are safe to take off their packs completely.
Some travellers have become adept at hiding the fact that they carry a backpack. We should not be fooled by this. There is no one on this earth who does not carry their memories, fears, hopes and dreams.
I am lucky enough to know a few people who have homes where I can visit and feel perfectly safe taking off my backpack. These homes are like a haven. I am hoping that my home is a place like this for others.
This week my challenge for you is to take a few seconds, each time you meet someone, to ask yourself, “I wonder what this person is carrying in their backpack today?”
Elizabeth is a certified professional Leadership Coach, and the owner of Critchley Coaching. She is the founder and president of the Canadian charity, RDL Building Hope Society. She works with individuals, corporations, non-profits and the public sector, providing leadership coaching. She creates and facilitates custom workshops for all sizes of groups. She has expertise in facilitating Strategic Plans for organizations and in conducting Leadership Reviews. Contact Elizabeth to learn to lighten the load of backpacks.