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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Checking Out

The words are familiar to anyone who grew up in the last few decades. “You can check out any time, but you can never leave.” The lyrics are from what many would consider the signature song by the Eagles, Hotel California. Apart from their superb musicianship, and ability to cross over musical genres, it is their gift for brilliant lyrics, literal and allegorical at the same time that always gets to me. So it is, with this phrase said by the night man; a devastating coda to a song about seductive dissolution.

There are times when perhaps we would like to check out, to escape the world and its grim realities. Alcohol or drugs are one way to check out; depression another. Some people go off to live alone for a time or seek the silence of a contemplative order. At times when “the world is too much with us”, as Wordsworth wrote, escape by any means is tempting. But as the Eagles remind us, we can never leave. The problem is that we carry the source of our existential angst with us wherever we go. We may be able to find temporary respite from the internal demons that hound us but it seems they never really go away; do they?

All of these thoughts were echoing through my mind the other night as I lay awake, restless and reminded of things done and left undone, regrets, and sadness for pain given and received. It was not a pretty picture, but I don’t want to suggest it was all bad. In fact, it was in many ways cleansing and renewing. It is perhaps best to take those memories from their dark closet and examine them in the light of day, but as we know they tend to like the twilight hours when we are less defended. But when we bar the door and keep these thoughts penned up out of sight, they have a particular power, a corrosive and nasty way of undermining us nonetheless. So, I welcomed them as old friends.

I let them come and do their best. It’s alright to feel uncomfortable, to feel the sting of shame and regret as long as we remember to let it go. Emptying out the closet from time to time, giving ourselves an emotional spring cleaning helps to remind us that we need to be careful in how we conduct our lives, that our words and actions have real consequence. And it also reminds us that we need to forgive the pains we have received as we ask for forgiveness ourselves. That’s how redemption works, we cannot be forgiven without forgiving and we cannot be loved unless we love, ourselves as well as others.

One meaning of redemption is to regain possession, to get back something we gave away or sold, or to clear a debt. I quite like this use of the word. It is what I mean when I say that I find those times when I lie awake and am visited by not so pleasant memories renewing. To remember allows me to review and strengthen my commitment, to avoid taking those paths I know lead only to regret. When I have been through one of these moments, I emerge the better for it, freshened by the experience and grateful that I have another day in which to live my life better.

To be clear, redemption is not about reciprocity. Theologians and psychiatrists, two professions that are grounded in very different perspectives would agree with what I wrote above. Individuals that have a strong sense of self awareness and respect can accept their limitations and learn to avoid making the choices that caused them to hurt, others and themselves. They can learn to forgive and let go, but not forget. The remembering is helpful even if uncomfortable at times. As the Eagles wrote, we can always check out, but leaving is not an option.

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