Opening Pandora’s Box

Last updated on June 7, 2021

box of old photos
This is box 1 of 4 containing all of my mom’s photos from when we were young.

Opening Pandora’s Box

As the photographer in the family, it was natural for me to inherit all of Mom’s photos after she died. I immediately saw a project of scanning all of the photos and sharing them with everyone. And while I was enthusiastic about the results, I hesitated to start the project.

That was 11 years ago! Those boxes have now been moved five times. They have sat in hot California garages, in cold Vermont garages, and our spare room here in Canada. They have survived UPS, moving vans, wheelbarrows, and getting shipped by pallet. 

But have they been opened? Not once, until yesterday.

Getting Started with the Project

My recent work on breaking projects down into 15-minute tasks has opened this project up into something doable. Yesterday, I scheduled 15 minutes to start the job, and I will continue with another 15 minutes soon. And I have found a scanning company too. 

Just getting over that hurdle is huge for me. But I was not prepared for the emotions that started to come up as I went through the photos.

As I stood there for just 15 minutes going through the first few handfuls of photos, I was surprised to notice a strange, contracting, sad, angry, hurt, abandoned mix of emotions showing up in me. It was nothing I could put my finger on, but I was experiencing something.

Luckily I Knew What to Do with It

Whenever I notice stressful emotions, I take some time to identify the thoughts that are running in my mind. I do this partly just to listen to myself (it feels really good just to notice what is going on), and partly because I would like to do The Work of Byron Katie on these thoughts.

As I sat today to do The Work, and I looked back on my experience of unpacking the box yesterday, I made a list of stressful thoughts that I can begin to question.

Situation 1: Seeing a postcard addressed to my dad in my mom’s handwriting, and signed by me (just barely able to write my name). 

This is an important postcard.
I can’t throw it away.
I want someone to think my writing is cute.
I should send it to dad.
It was never postmarked, and that means…
Mom didn’t prioritize sending it to Dad.
She didn’t really like Dad so much.
I want Mom to like Dad more.
My family was not as Ideal as I thought. 

Situation 2: Seeing photos of my sister as a young teenager. 

She is so cute.
I can see how Mom would love her.
I hope she loved me as much.
Mom was disappointed in me.
My sister never let my Mom down.
I let my mom down.
I’m not in my mom’s good graces anymore. 

Situation 3: Seeing a tapestry from South America.  This came from my Aunt. 

Mom wanted to please my Aunt.
Mom shouldn’t have been so eager to please her.
I want to throw it away.
I shouldn’t throw it away. 

Situation 4: Seeing photos of my step-sister. 

I should send these to her.
I don’t really belong in her family.
I’ve been out of touch for too long. 

Situation 5: Seeing a photo of my other sister in high school with some friends. 

She looks so young.
We were just babies then.
I want to get back to those days.
I wasn’t really a part of her life (I graduated from high school 5 years before she did). 

Situation 6: Seeing a photo of me (age 3) with my dad who is holding a string of fish

My dad is younger than I am now.
What is my mom thinking as she takes the photo?
She has reservations about my dad.
I am like my dad, so she can’t fully like me.
I’m a little distant from my dad.
I don’t belong to either of them.

Just Identifying Those Stressful Thoughts Feels Good

There’s something about getting thoughts out onto paper that is already freeing. I have not begun to question them, but just finding them is liberating. 

Before I wrote out the thoughts, I was just feeling a mix of emotions. I couldn’t even be sure what was bothering me. It was an emotional soup that I didn’t know what to do with.

What helped me was to identify different mini-situations: each different photo was a different situation and came with different emotions and thoughts. As I went through each situation, it became clear what the stressful thoughts were, and I could simply write them down.

Now I Can Add This to My Work Queue

I now have a nice list of statements that I can put in line to be questioned during my regular 30-minute daily written work session. Each day, I’ll work another, and another, until I’ve had enough. I’ve found the wood, now I will feed it one piece at a time through the wood chipper.

Having Trouble Identifying The Thoughts?

Try using this approach: find a mini-situation within your situation. Sometimes, that can make it clearer what is bothering you in that particular moment.

Feel free to bring questions about how to identify stressful thoughts to any of my weekly Open Sessions. And consider taking The Work 101, my 9-week online course.

Have a great week,

“If you aren’t completely comfortable in the world, do The Work. That’s what every uncomfortable feeling is for—that’s what pain is for, what money is for, what walls and clouds and dogs and cats and trees are for, what everything in the world is for: your self-realization. It’s all a mirror image of your own thinking. Judge it, investigate it, turn it around, and set yourself free, if freedom is what you want. It’s good that you experience anger, fear, or sadness. Sit down, identify the story, and do The Work. Until you can see everything in the world as a friend, your Work is not done.” Byron Katie, Loving What Is

Further reading: Taking Time to Identify What Is Really Bothering Me

About the author

Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.

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