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Essay

Becoming a Burden

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Last week I drove 1797.5 miles in a big loop down through Indiana and Kentucky into Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, and back home through West Virginia and Ohio.  I had meetings to attend in two different states and managed to see some friends too.  But I also had a good deal of time alone in the car to think. There’s plenty to think about at the moment (but that’s probably always true, really): about work, about friends and their struggles, about a colleague’s recent serious medical diagnoses, about plans and hopes for the future–about so many things. 

And my mind went back to a piece I wrote for Perspectives about a decade ago (April 2004).  Ten years on, I’m not sure I have any better answers than I had then, but I thought it was perhaps worth sharing again. 

 


I’ve decided to become a burden.  I’m sure my friends will be thrilled to hear it.

I realize that I’m already probably a lot for them to bear, but to consciously decide to burden them flies in the face of a lifetime of training.  Martha’s not my favorite Bible character for nothing.  No, as I think about it, it’s pretty difficult to overcome principles which have become more like ingrained rules: always be ready to do more than your share of any work that needs doing, always keep your own personal difficulites in check, and never overstay your welcome.  Be competent and be in control.  Put another way, as so eloquently stated in A League of Their Own, “no crying in baseball.” 

Perhaps I come by all this naturally.  As I was growing up, we were that family in the church that was there for everything: morning and evening Sundays and as many week nights as were necessary.  My mother and father seemed to be president, chair, and leader of every group, committee, and activity.  Though I must acknowledge that their service grew out of a real sense of Christian love, they were so ubiquitious that when my mother died very unexpectedly, one little girl in my parents’ church remarked to her mother, “But who will make the coffee now that Mrs. Holberg’s dead?”  Indeed.

In the days following my mother’s death, as the innumberable cakes and breads and cookies and pans of lasagna began to pile up on our kitchen counter,  I remember wanting to refuse the next kind woman who called to offer us food.  After all, we did that for other people—we  were not so helpless as to need it done for us.  And when I returned to my job, I certainly had no intention of letting on to my colleagues how I was feeling.  I taught my classes, did my work, and kept my emotional business at home.  Still, I was surprised when, at the last faculty meeting of the year, we opened our meeting with a prayer where everyone who had experienced personal problems or losses that year was named.  Except me.  I was hurt—but how could the situation have been otherwise? I had given my colleagues no entry into my grief. 

I know I’m not alone in this struggle against the idolatry of omnicompetence.  Last fall in the staff lunchroom, I ran into one of my campus colleagues who looked pretty frazzled, and so I asked her how she was.  After hesitating a moment, she proceeded to tell me about the myriad tasks that were overwhelming her.  When she finished, I said I’d pray for her.  Her response was telling: “Oh, that’s okay–I don’t want you to think I’m a bleeding mess or something.”  No, we certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think that. And she’s in good company: another woman I know told me that she had refused to let her husband put her on the prayer chain as she was being tested for cancer because if it wasn’t true think how she  “would have put people out.”  And another colleague, usually the definition of “together,” after crying as we commiserated about a particularly hard week remarked, “Oh dear, that’s the second time you’ve seen me cry this semester.”  No, we won’t want that either. 

Maybe these examples seem silly, but I think it would be a mistake to judge these  women too harshly. Perhaps because I understand and so often share their motivation, I also understand that there’s something truly laudable in not being the whiner of the bunch, in being “together.”  So often it seems like we are asked to tolerate all manner of dysfunction and rarely seem to value the people who are pulling their own weight.  The English novelist Anita Brookner has the  protagonist in one of her books articulate the frustration that we Marthas of the world often feel:

I was working on Van Gogh’s self-portraits at the same time. I remember, trying to disentangle the sequence that he painted when he was either becoming mad or had already gone mad….I tried to take a detached and efficient interest in what I was doing, but at some point I became aware of the painter’s small crafty blue eye staring back at me from its scarlet setting.  I felt no sympathy.  On the contrary, I felt a spurt of dislike for him….My feelings were all for his benighted brother, trying to be a respectable art dealer in Paris and having to cope with this nutter and his demands.  I try to raise a small cheer for sanity, from time to time. 

Still, despite our real fears to the contrary, being a burden needn’t be equated with becoming black holes of emotional need.  Even St. Paul, who didn’t want to be a burden either (see 2 Corinthians 12:14), wrote to the early churches on more than one occasion, instructing them to “carry each other’s burdens.”  But how exactly do we do that?  And, as importantly, how do we work on allowing others to carry our burdens instead of always focusing on how we can carry theirs?

I have to be honest—I’m not really sure how to answer my own questions.  And, given my own lack of success in this area, anyone who knows me at all will be relieved that I am not going to assert myself at this point in the essay as an authority of any kind.  What does occur to me, however, is that “being a burden” presumes a level of vulnerability that most of us don’t allow ourselves.  To whom are we willing to reveal ourselves?  To whom are we willing to expose the illusion of our own strength?  The older I get, the more I realize that the group involved is a small one indeed.  All the more reason to figure out how to cultivate and cherish those rare relationships.

I read an obituary recently about Dame Felicitas Corrigan, a noted nun with considerable achievements.  Though the article chronicled her many outstanding contributions, it was the following assertion that stayed with me long after I finished reading: “Her greatest genius was reserved for friendship.”  I can think of no lovelier epitaph.  Corrigan’s motto, “Porta patet, cor magis (the door is open, more so the heart),” suggests a largesse of spirit that we would do well to imitate as we seek to open ourselves up to those people who will act as our support, propping us up when necessary.  When we over-worry about equity, about who has done what for whom and if what we have done back is enough or too much or nowhere near enough, we make the business of friendship into a commercial transaction.  And friendship is no place for such economics–or strict recordkeeping.  1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love keeps no records of wrong, but love shouldn’t keep a record of rights either. 

This Christmas as I watched Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I realized why I liked Samwise Gamgee so much: he didn’t know how to handle burdens either.  Arguably the strongest character throughout the trilogy, he repeatedly wants to ease Frodo’s burden and carry the ring for him.  But Frodo always refuses.  Finally, as they make their final ascent to destroy the ring, Sam understands: “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well.”  Like Sam, we err when we believe that we can solve the problems of our friends or that our “superior” strength can shield them from the difficulties they encounter.  But how we carry them (and equally how we allow ourselves to be carried by them) in prayer and in the thousand quotidian ways we find to encourage them attests finally to how strong our conviction is that, with the writer of Psalm 68, it is ultimately God who daily bears our burdens.”  

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

2 Comments

  • Lee Delp says:

    I share your dilemma- what is the balance between complaining and being a burden. I am frequently convicted over how much easier it is for me to pray for someone than to ask a person to pray for me. My conclusion so far is my problem is simple pride.

    Thanks for your openness.

  • Elaine Schnabe says:

    Gosh. This is exactly how I feel after coming home from Korea. With my church in Busan, we were all burdens on one another and we all knew it, to some extent, because our support networks were so small. We expected and lived through each other's problems. Here in America, though, I already feel a greater pressure to have things put together without outside help.

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