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Joe Eames for Thinkster

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Burden vs Load

Imagine a scenario: your friend is at the gym, you see her in the window, lifting weights. As you look inside you notice how heavy those weights are. You watch your friend struggling under the weight, pushing up, then letting them down for a rest, then pushing up again. Over and over. Your heart goes out. She is struggling, suffering. You can see the pain on her face, the effort. You MUST help. So you run inside, grab the bar, and begin helping her, pulling up with each repetition.

You continue this for some time, never really asking one specific question: "Are you really helping?"

There is an amazing aspect of human physiology. Our muscles are anti-fragile. They get stronger the more they are worked. In fact, growth comes from "breaking down" the muscle.

There is a parallel principle of human psychology: our minds are also anti-fragile. The more difficulties we face, the more resilient we become. There are exceptions to this, but generally, this is true. Leaving aside serious mental injury and illness, our psyches benefit from difficulty.

And yet, for our friends, family, children, parents, we see their struggles and want to alleviate their burdens. The stories of people who grew up in great adversity rose from that adversity to great success, and cite how much they don't want their children to go through what they did. And yet their very success in life was a result of their adversity.

So then should we just callously watch others suffer? Is this the answer?


The key comes in understanding the difference between "burdens" and "load". These definitions are hardly widespread, but I will use them in this email as a way to separate out two concepts that must be understood as we look to help others.

The load is the weight we carry from day-to-day. These are difficulties that help us grow. They make us stronger. Things like being responsible for our own finances. Facing difficulties in relationships and work. Conflict with others.


Photos by Derek Howard

Burdens, on the other hand, are the extra difficulties that come from time to time that we need help with. Breakups, divorce, serious illness, family deaths.

The real difficulty here is that the same thing can sometimes be load, and sometimes burden. In fact, the same trial can be BOTH load and burden.

How much we "help" can determine whether we are lifting burden or load. Taking too much of the current trial someone is facing can be a problem. Why we help can also be a problem. Both for us and the other person. Who helps can change whether we are taking load or burden. Sometimes the same help from a parent can be hurting, while if it comes from a friend or significant other it is a help.

In these situations, we must also understand our responsibilities and obligations. Are we truly obliged to help? Often times we feel as if we are, yet we aren't. This is where healthy boundaries come in.

The greatest problem in all of this is simply the fact that there is no clear answer to any of these questions in just about any situation. In all cases, we must be careful to analyze and consider when and how and why we help. Just because we "can" doesn't mean we "should".

And often the most difficult thing to do is to not help the way the other person wants but to help the way they need. I struggle with this myself frequently. Especially with how I help my own children.

One way we can almost always help is with empathy. True empathy. Not distraction, or sympathy or lecture, but true empathy.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to not hurt by helping.

Happy Coding!

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