Some very wise people in my life have said, “If everyone were to throw their problems in the middle of the room and you were able to take any of the problems and leave yours, you would pick yours back up rather than take on someone else’s.” Sorta like the White Elephant gift exchange gone depressingly wrong.
I think there is a tremendous amount of truth in the thought that we would rather have our own stuff instead of someone else’s when we can clearly see the extent of what others carry, ours doesn’t look half bad.
What this exercise would do, if it could really be done, is increase a sense of empathy and understanding for those we walk amongst daily. The crushing weight of worry and anxiety, heartache and loss is ubiquitous. No one gets out of this world without some of that. It is our connection and response to these painful moments and seasons that determine the extent of what we will carry and for how long. We could cliché this reality very easily with such platitudes as: “The only way out is through” or something of that nature. While there is truth to that, I rarely have found that helpful when I am sitting in darkness and hurting. The next step toward freedom seems impossible to take.
I am an isolator. I know I’m not alone there. It’s as though I go into power down mode when difficult feelings or situations rise. I know I’m not alone there, either. And isn’t that ironic? I know I am not alone in feeling utterly alone at times. If that isn’t an awful merry-go-round I don’t know what would be. The isolation that I often retreat into removes connection to people in my life. Every. Single. Time. And then I wonder, where the heck are you people, not realizing that it is me who has gone away. Experiencing painful moments doesn’t have to be so hard. It will likely still be very difficult when encountering these times, but it does not have to be so incredibly lonely and painful when others are around to help us shoulder the burden.
A missionary friend told me a story from her time in S. Africa that often occurs to me, especially when I need it most. She described a man who was carrying a pack that must have weighed over 100 pounds as he walked and walked and walked. He was an older gentleman, with a weathered, tired face. The weight that he was carrying had him hunched over, his torso parallel to the road he was trudging. This friend pulled over and invited to give him a ride. He accepted and got into the bed of the truck. She drove a bit and then saw in her review mirror that he was hunched over still, kneeling in the back of the truck with the weight still tied to his back. She pulled to the side of the road and told him he could take the pack off while they drove. His reply was, “It’s too heavy for your truck. It will break it.”
So we say, without words, but entirely in action: “The weight, it’s too heavy for you, it will break you. I will shoulder the burden alone. I will carry the pain myself. I may accept your kindness of company, but I will keep this weight on my back while I do.” I am not alone here, though I sit feeling alone. When this is reality, there is no sanctuary. When this is the truth we believe, there is often little hope that it could ever change. There is nothing more lonely than being lonely when surrounded by people.
I recently climbed a huge hill, called Tumamoc. I went from a very sedentary existence from the last few years to taking this on. I was accompanied by a dear friend and his two of his sons, who are elementary school age. We consider this friend’s kids to be our nephews and niece. Time with them is always pretty fantastic. We started up the hill and it became quickly apparent that I was going to struggle. Each of them were all geared up and ready, could walk likely twice my pace, but they stayed and accompanied me.
We chatted as we walked. I stopped nearly every chance I got to catch my breath. We were .6 miles away from the top of the hill when I was seriously thinking of throwing in the towel. My friend and his sons walked ahead of me, stopping at the next rest point while I gathered myself 500 ft away. I knew I was so close, but everything hurt. Everything. My breathing was forced and painful. I just wanted to be done. I turned to wave my friend and his kids to come back, but when I turned around I saw something that emboldened my resolve. My nephews were walking back toward me. They each stood on either side of me and the youngest one, only eight years old said, “We’re coming to help you Uncle Davin.” In that moment, there was no way I was not going to finish that hike. No way at all.
The accompaniment of relationship during hard times and hard emotions can seem impossible. There are many messages we receive in our culture that there is little time for grief, there is little time for emotion, there is little time for expressing need. I often buy into that myth. The truth, though, is we are a people who have capacity to love incredibly deeply which means we have the capacity to grieve very deeply. There is room for the love and there is room for the grief, there is room for all of it.
I do not know what problems occurred to you when you read the first paragraph. I do know what problems occurred to me as I wrote it. I also know that the longer we retreat, the longer we hide, the longer we will suffer. Have you ever attempted to take a splinter or cactus out of a child’s finger? They writhe, they yell, they cry even before you get started on this major surgery. And it goes on and on and on, until they settle enough to get it removed. Then it is done in a heartbeat. The more we struggle against what is and the more we refuse to allow others to see what exists below the surface, the more injurious it will be.
I may not want to trade my problems for yours and you likely don’t want to trade yours for mine. I do want us, thought, to unload it on the floor, spread it out, and rest for awhile together. I have a feeling we may even shed some weight of our packs in this process before trekking to our next rest stop.