The Little Black Box
It had become a box of bitterness.
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of love or a season?
~ from Reluctance by Robert Frost
A year after my friend David went through a devastating broken engagement, he went on a mission trip to Rwanda and Kenya. There, serving the poor and bringing suffering people the healing message of Christ, he made a decision to move on with his life.
His heartbreak still was deep. Months earlier, he had given up a dream to marry the woman he loved. His world was crushed. He put a “For Sale” sign in front of a fully furnished house that was built for their new life together, complete with a newly poured driveway bearing the initials of him and his bride.
He drove away in shock and disappointment and disbelief.
But in Kenya, David sensed God was moving him in a new direction. David knew God was bigger than his pain, that He could redeem all of the hurt and make something beautiful out of it. David was ready to leave behind the pain of the past and surrender it to God.
When packing for Africa, David thought to pack a collection of old love letters, photos, and other mementos. He hadn’t been able to throw them away.
But he also sensed that it might be time to let go of them.
And so one day, while walking through Kenya’s Kibera slum, a dark, impoverished community that is more a wasteland than a neighborhood, he got his chance. An old rusted trash can on the street was filled with fire, its flames turning litter into swirling smoke. He tossed the letters into the flames, thanked God for new beginnings, and never looked back.
About a month ago, I thought I also might turn some old love letters into a pillar of smoke.
I was packing for a return trip to Liberia, West Africa. Last year, I had lived there for nearly seven months, writing the post-war stories of this traumatized nation. Liberia endured a 14-year civil war that began in 1989 and ended in 2003, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people and forced thousands of refugees to flee into forests and neighboring countries.
I wasn’t suffering from a broken engagement. But I was more than two years out of a serious relationship with Matt, whom I loved, and I hadn’t been able to let go of a small black box filled with mementos of our relationship. It had been painful to open the box. Painful to throw it away.
If I was really honest with myself, I could maybe even admit that I hadn’t, like Frost’s poem, “accepted the end of love.”
When Matt and I broke up, I had no problem selling or giving away the material items he had given me. A strand of black pearls made a fine birthday present for the girlfriend of some guy I found through craigslist. A tourmaline jewelry set Matt had bought me in the Dominican Republic went to one of my best girlfriends. My collection of dried roses went into the trash; Matt was a flower giver, and I saved one from every bouquet he gave me.
But the box was different. It had the cards in which he wrote how I was the love of his life. The DVD with a photo slideshow about our relationship. The bound book of photos of the two of us dancing in a Virginia forest during autumn.
At the time, I decided to pack up the box and keep it for a little while. I held onto some hope that we’d get back together, and I didn’t want to destroy our relationship’s history. It was preserved so neatly and securely in that box.
But as the months passed, I heard from friends about how I had to let go of the past in order to move forward into the life that God had for me. Matt had made a decision, and now I had to as well. Hanging onto hope, whether I was doing so consciously, wasn’t helping me. It was holding me back.
But how could a little black box hurt me so much?
Sometimes I got out the box and read the cards. Sometimes Matt’s words would make me cry. I wanted him to still believe them.
Sometimes the words made me angry. I thought about what a fool he had been to write them and then to retract them.
What did he know about love? He had walked away.
I was bitter.
Eventually I stopped opening the box. It got buried in a crate in a storage unit, where my most of my material possessions would stay while I went overseas. But occasionally, I thought about the box.
Post-breakup life was difficult. After nearly two years of dating long-distance, Matt had finally moved up to be near me in Washington, D.C. We broke up about three months later. After the breakup, Matt continued to attend my church. Annoyingly, he became the photographer at a number of my friend’s weddings. Later, he got a job at my workplace.
I could have stayed in Washington, D.C., but thankfully, God called me to Liberia. There I watched as He used my heart for broken people to reach out to a traumatized nation and to help give suffering people a voice. He did this all while I, too, was suffering from a broken heart. It was an incredible adventure. A healing adventure. A freeing adventure.
When I returned home, I spent some time in D.C. I didn’t know if I could live there again, especially since Matt was there and our social circles had collided.
When I ran into Matt unexpectedly at my old workplace and coldly blew him off, I realized how much power I was giving him in my life. It was a power that he didn’t even know he had. And it certainly wasn’t fair to act as if he had control of making my life miserable.
I had control of my miserableness.
I still had been holding on to him, brooding over the sweet words and longings locked away in that black box of memories. But that black box also had become a box of bitterness, and I was symbolically carrying it everywhere I went.
Later I apologized to Matt, but distanced myself thereafter. I focused on being back in D.C. with my friends and community. I realized that I could open a new box in this old city and unpack my new life — even if Matt was there, too. Even if I didn’t feel comfortable with how he had come into my world. Even if it was hard.
When it was time to pack for Liberia, I considered taking the old box of memories along. I thought perhaps I’d burn it on a beach or find a slum and a fiery trash can like David did.
But I knew that if I held onto the box much longer that I risked the consequences that come with reluctance. I think about how Michal experienced bitterness when she didn’t let go of King David or how Thomas experienced shame when he was reluctant to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. And what if Jesus had been reluctant to submit to the Father and die for the sins of the world?
No matter how harmless the little black box appeared, packed in a temperature-controlled storage unit like a museum piece, I realized the potential it had to keep me from moving forward into the new life God had for me. It threatened to keep me stuck in the past, to miss opportunities to use the affliction of my healing years to comfort those who also were being afflicted (2 Corinthians 1:5-7), and to even move forward in a relationship with someone who could be my future husband.
By the time I finally had to close my suitcase, I had decided. The little black box was staying. I finally had let go.
Copyright 2009 Christina Holder. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. This article was first published on Ungrind.org.
About the Author
Christina Holder is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in USA TODAY and The Washington Times. She is a former reporter for the Naples (Fla.) Daily News and a former reporter/researcher for syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak in Washington, D.C.