What are We if Not Burdens?
Right after graduating high school, I went on a weeklong backpacking trip in the wilderness of southwest Colorado. Having never seen the Rocky Mountains, I was thrilled for the opportunity, but being a native sea-level flatlander from Louisiana, my body was wholly unprepared for the effects of altitude. Sometime in the night after our first day’s hike, I succumbed to altitude sickness.
The following day, I could do nothing but lay in my sleeping bag inside the tent and wait, so it seemed, for death. It became an unplanned rest day for the entire group . . . because of me. Our guides, concerned over my inability to keep any food or water down, considered having me evacuated while the rest of the group went on with the trip. On the morning of Day 3, the decision was made to continue the hike—with me. The decision was also made—and this causes me tears even thinking about it now—to ease my burden by divvying up amongst the group the entirety of the fifty or so pounds of gear and food from my backpack. Mind you, we were still early in the trip, and everyone’s pack was, by and large, already heavily laden. My friends literally took the burden of weight from me and carried it, because if they had not, I would have been unable to continue the adventure. I recovered, and that trip is, to this day, one of my most cherished memories.
Remembering how they did that causes me tears, but I cry a lot these days. While eating lunch recently with a longtime friend, he answered my tears with an unexpected, “Yes, you are a burden. And that’s how it should be.” Our sons are best pals, so throughout any given week, we see quite a bit of this family, and have come to trust them as safe, loyal, devoted. At the time, internally burdened by much more than mere frankfurters and French fries, I cried while confessing the endless, losing war happening in my head, how deeply defeated and tired I was, how desperately I wanted and needed rest, how I wanted to get off the crazy train that is this culture in which we live. My friend, having never seen me so overcome, calmly asked why I apologized to him three times in the course of finally breaking down in front of him (innocent bystanders and chili cheese dogs notwithstanding). “Because I don’t want to be a burden to you. I don’t want my neediness to be something you have to bear,” I voiced. That, of course, was the voice of shame, of exhausted isolation, of fear of being vulnerable, of letting down my high walls. My friend recounted his own similar experience years ago in being vulnerable with a confidant, to which he was met with the same reply: “You’re right, you are a burden. And that’s exactly how it should be. What are we if not burdens to one another?”
I was startled and taken aback. That’s the way it should be? As middle-age kicks me in the teeth (and sundry parts), I realize how useless I am on my own to fight the fight that I have to fight: against depression, despair, discouragement, grief, the army of bastard voices that mock just about every act and thought I entertain, and the motherlode of shame I carry around. Shame and fear are pious, restless, deadweight cousins who are exhausting to shoulder alone. Having verbalized the darkness, knowing that my friend heard me and knew I needed help bearing the load, I went about that day lighter, more engaged, braver.
Rest. What exactly does it mean, as David wrote in Psalm 57, to “rest in the refuge of the shadow of God’s wings”? Going forward, that act of humility is crucial. True rest requires acceptance of the veracity of weakness and failure. Rest is an obedient, lifelong, uncomfortable surrender to the comforting fact that there is nothing left to do, that all has been done—the work that matters, at least—that to live and breathe is to be enough, to be acceptable, to be worthy. Rest is the unclenching of fists, the debunking of the myth that any of us has any control, that we can be islands unto ourselves. To rest is to recuse myself from a career of clawing and striving, from trying to prove myself over and over again. The world is ruthless, unbearably mad, and addictive; attempting to shoulder its enervating burdens only wreaks more chaos in the mind. It may sound insane, but the only answer to such madness is to fully accept failure, make friends with disappointment, embrace weakness, and exit the crazy, speeding train. Jump off, if necessary. The fall, though no train passenger would tell you this, is not so bad. In fact, the fall, though not without pain, is freedom.
It is obtusely modern to avoid the appearance of being a burden to anyone, least of all those we call friends. Neediness reeks of weakness, and vice versa, and there isn’t much space for needy people in our self-confident, never-enough culture. An emotional wreck myself, I admit to the failure of isolation and individualism. Rather than having admitted any sort of need, I’ve taken shelter in the false forests, crawling along its trails with a backpack much too heavy, snuffing out the wisps of grief, raking the carcass of shame across the embers of anxiety, and making meals out of burden.
To have insisted on carrying the entirety of backpack contents those long years ago, I would have been not only in denial, but I would have been a stubborn, arrogant fool to believe I was capable of bearing that load by myself for all the wilderness ground we had to cover. My friends took my burden then, and I need them to take it now—for rest, for relief, for a moment to look up and be witness to the broken beauty of who I really am, and, if I’m lucky, to help carry the burden of a friend in need. What are we if not burdens to one another?