If the inside of my own head is any indication, we all carry psychological burdens. If that’s not bad enough, we try to trade one burden for another and end up carrying them both.
I got one of my burdens when I was about eight years old, riding the school bus. No one would sit with me. I was lonely, but I hoped no one noticed I was alone, because then they really wouldn’t want to be with me. No one likes an unpopular kid. It’s memory of a single moment of feeling sorry for myself. I’ve carried it around ever since.
At that moment, I experienced an abyss of loneliness, brokenness, meaninglessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, futility, emptiness, shame, and despair. Loneliness is very consequential for a kid. Young children left alone can soon be dead children. Kids know this and take loneliness seriously. By the time I attended school, being left alone was not a death sentence, but being accepted by peers was certainly imperative. It made the difference between a good day and a bad one.
It could have been the only time in my entire childhood no one sat with me. Other times kids were friendly, I was included, and people listened to what I had to say. I was not lonely in the bosom of family, in a safe and vibrant community, a citizen of one of the most consequential nations on earth, belonging to a race that enjoys widespread privilege. I had no good reason to conclude on the basis of that single memory that I was unlikable and friendless, but I did anyway. That’s the nature of a burden. Sometimes there’s a good reason a psychological burden will impose itself on you, but there doesn’t need to be.
That wasn’t the only time I fell into the Abyss. There was a time some kids teased me, another time I was forgotten, when I didn’t make the Little League team one year and, another year, when I did make it but let everyone down by striking out. Any kid can point to dozens of similar instances; they don’t have to mean anything.
It’s not the incident that creates a burden. It’s your rejection of it. I couldn’t look at being left alone without seeing the Abyss. I called my feeling ugly and rejected it. Now, I carry it because I crippled it. I’ve been trying to get rid of it all my life, but it keeps coming back. Every time I go out to lunch and sit alone, it climbs on my back. There’s no shaking anything that’s been touched by the Abyss.
Peddlers in my psyche come along, bearing their own burdens and offer to take my Burden if I take theirs. I agree, take their burden, but they walk away without taking mine. One brings books. If I take that peddler’s burden, I must have a book whenever I sit anywhere by myself. The book will make it look like I don’t even want anyone to sit with me, but I do. I’ve read lots of good books because of it, but the Burden is still there. Plus, I have to schlep a book.
Another peddler carries a shell. I take his shell and crawl into it, acting introverted when I’m someplace new or with someone I don’t know how to act around. I fade into the woodwork and hope no one notices me. It’s a burden to have to act that way but is still doesn’t do any good. I secretly want someone to join me in my shell.
Sometimes I take on the burden of organizing groups and play the host. For instance, I have a group of therapists that meets once a month to discuss difficult cases. I also organize a pickup tennis group. In both cases, I’ve taken the initiative to bring people together. The therapist group, so I have other therapists to consult with; and the tennis group, so I can play. Do I still have the original burden? You betcha, I’m left to wonder if anyone would invite me if I didn’t do the organizing.
It makes no sense to me why I’m an introvert one minute, and the next minute I’m the host. Sometimes in my head, I’m debating between being an introvert and an extrovert at the same time. Perhaps that means I’m not truly an introvert or an extrovert. They’re both strategies I employ at different times. When I’m torn between the two, that’s me deciding between two peddlers. One is selling introversion, and the other, playing the host.
Another peddler says if I take on the burden of being a therapist, I can give him the burden of the bus. Instead of feeling sorry for sitting alone, he tells me to look around for others who are sitting alone and has me sit with them. I tell myself that I’m helping them, when in fact I’m helping myself. It doesn’t work, though. Everyone’s burden is their own.
Clients are always coming to me to share their burdens. They talk about experiences they had like mine on the bus, or worse. I feel bad for them. Sometimes I’m still troubled after they leave, but it’s ridiculous to claim I’m taking their burdens. They still must live their lives. It’s not like I can live for them.
Do I feel less lonely because I’m a therapist? My calendar is full, but nobody makes an appointment to see how I feel.
Sometimes I’m burdened with needing to check Facebook, Twitter, and the sale of my books. I’ve also been tempted to go on Instagram and TikTok. You might have a part of you that does that. The folks at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok hope so. Taking on a social media burden offers to relieve me of the burden I got when no one would sit with me on the bus because I can point to the number of friends I have and all the likes and re-tweets they give me. It doesn’t help, though. I can always find someone on social media who has more friends, likes, and re-tweets.
I’ve tried being a loner. One day, I went to the movies by myself and started to feel self-conscious that no one had gone with me. That convinced me to go to the movies alone every day in defiance of that feeling. I even ended up seeing films I didn’t want to see. I’ve also gone hiking alone in the wilderness and traveled by myself in a foreign country, all to show myself I can do it. The burden of the bus still shows up even when I have dared it to come.
I could glom on to anyone who would have me or not be able to get rid of me. I’ve met people who’ve tried to do this. It doesn’t do them any good. For one thing, it’s inevitable that, despite their efforts they’ll still have to endure some brief moments alone. For another, there’s nothing that makes people want to get rid of you faster than when you try to make yourself adhesive.
I could take up the burden of having sex with everyone I can find. I could become an alcoholic or a drug addict to forget the burden of feeling lonely. I could become rich and famous, run for office, and have multitudes vote for me, but I have a sneaky feeling my burden will still be there. In truth, it doesn’t matter how many books I’ve read, how many events I plan, how many friends or clients I have, how much I stay in my shell or act like I don’t care, how much sex I have, alcohol I drink, drugs I consume, or notoriety I possess; I’ll still have my burden. I’ll take on new burdens but will never be rid of my own. Even when I’m an old, old man, doddering around in my nursing home, and have forgotten everything else, I’ll still have the burden I got on the bus to torment me. From what I’ve seen, it’s hard to be alone in a nursing home, but very easy to feel lonely.
I’ve come to accept my burden, most of the time, and it has become less burdensome. I’ve even come to cherish it, as I cherish other memorabilia from my childhood. I’ve also got a collection of old drawings and a story I wrote during that time. They’re all embarrassingly inept and childish. My conclusion that no one liked me because no one sat with me is just as inept and childish. I keep the old drawings and a story to remind me that I haven’t always been as I am now, as evidence of change. My burden serves the same function.
My clients have their burdens and accept many bad deals that result in taking up new burdens. Some of these are truly rotten arrangements. One will offer suicide as a solution. It offers to take your burden if you accept the burden of death. If you have a burden, I hope this article can help you recognize it, as well as the things you do to try to get rid of it.
As my burden becomes less burdensome, I have less reason to accept the bad deals that promise to relieve me. Nonetheless, I’m glad I became a bookworm and a therapist, even if it doesn’t make my burden go away. Sometimes, I’ll be reserved, or I’ll host. I won’t stop using social media and enjoying solitude. I’ll keep my attachments and enjoy sex. It’s one thing to have all that in your life, just as long as they don’t become a burden to me. I have burdens enough of my own.