The Things We Carry

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“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.”

I used to teach an excerpt of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which recounts the author’s experiences in Vietnam. The excerpt we read was somewhat lack-luster – a nod to a contemporary American classic without actually delving into the parts with the gore of death or the profanity of serving. I read the book in its entirety in college, but not until later in my life, as a teacher and mother, did I re-read this excerpt and feel something different.

As outlined in the section, the men carried items necessary for survival: canteens, weapons, dry socks, and letters from home. And, as mentioned above, they carried intangibles such as fear, interrupted love stories, and regret. I read this passage as an adult and as a parent, and I understand, for the first time, how heavy and exhausting it is to carry intangibles. Quite often these are the things that truly weigh us down.

As a teacher my day is busy with attendance, managing lessons and behaviors, making copies and preparing for what’s next. As a mother my day is busy with meal planning, shoe-tying, boo boo-kissing, and discipline. These, however, are only the tangibles. And while they keep me busy from sun up to sun down, these are not the weights that keep me awake at night.

Those are the intangibles. Those things are heavy. And unlike a social invite that you can turn down or a dish you can simply refuse to wash, the intangibles can’t be set down as easily. Sometimes they can be moved over, sent to the back of the line, but they always resurface.

No matter the narrative I occupy myself with during my waking hours, the intangibles are always ready for a conversation just as my head hits the pillow. These include worries, fears, insecurities, and regrets. These ideas bounce back and forth across my brain in an ask-and-answer style as my logical self tries to reassure my emotional self that I am doing an ok job of parenting. My logical self tries to reassure my emotional self that my oldest son, who sometimes struggles emotionally, will turn out ok. And my brain tries to assure my heart that my children will grow to be happy, loving adults. My intelligence tries to reassure my emotions that there is good in the world, and my orderly self tries to temper my anger with injustice and uncertainty.

I abandon the tangibles early on in the evening and tell myself it’s because I have the ability to compartmentalize, to maintain control. And yet, hours after the tangibles have been laid to rest I am awake and questioning a co-worker’s comment, my own sense of self-worth, and my role in this world.

I turn off the television and announce that “enough is enough” when the coverage of this election cycle seems intolerable, but the stillness only makes room for my worries about the future of this world. I worry about what type of world my grandchildren will inherit. I worry that they will not breathe fresh air or know the quietness of peace.

And so I look back at that over-used passage from O’Brien’s work and understand, as an adult, how crucial this understanding is. The toll this service took on those men was greater than injury and exhaustion. It was psychological; it was traumatic. And I understand that the things we carry are both external and internal. We size up each other’s external baggage and assume we know what one another are carrying, but in reality we can never know.

And we lie to ourselves about our own things. We manage the tangibles, so that we can hide from the intangibles for another moment or so. However, in order to survive, we must find a way to set some of those intangibles down. Some of them we must honor, then bury and walk away. We need not forget them, but we must give them a final resting place. Because, after all, we can often only affect the tangibles and carrying it all is just too damn exhausting.

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