Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The burdens we carry

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." It's a popular quotation. Sometimes it's attributed to Plato but the website Quote Investigators disagrees. It definitely sounds more 19th century A.D. than 5th century B.C.

I know a lot of people who fight harder battles than myself and carry heavier burdens. But relativity between burdens does not negate any of them nor make any of them lighter. The person carrying the 100lb cross shouldn't sneer at the person carrying the 50lb cross, nor fawn over the person carrying the 200lb cross. The simple fact is that we're all in the same situation, limping along with our weights. When possible, we give others a hand... but even the 50-pounder would have difficulty situating himself to be any great help to the 200-pounder. Crosses aren't just heavy, they're awkward, and their difficulty doesn't scale precisely with their weight.

There's also the matter that crosses, burdens, battles, etc. aren't generally obvious. Hence the need for the quote to remind us. Sometimes we like to shine the light of judgment through a magnifying glass onto the upright "golden boy" who walks unburdened and free. Or sometimes we make a remark about how some things just seem "easier" for someone else.

I actually got that a lot in college. Imagine the dirty looks when my 11th-hour all-nighter 10-page research essay scored higher than many of my peers who labored for several days. "It must be nice," one friend said, "to be able to do everything at the last minute and still get good grades." That was a bittersweet moment. Because on the one hand, my friend was calling me intelligent. But he was also comparing our crosses. By his reckoning, I was coasting through school.

It would be nice if my academic record was the result of a happy-go-lucky personality combined with an intelligence capable of last-minute success. But that description rings hollow. I wanted to be the serious student: responsible, trustworthy, reliable. Instead I was caught sleeping in classes more than once. My peers played a game of treasure hunt with the coffee cups, breviaries, textbooks and notebooks that I was always leaving in strange places. Even when I enclosed myself into a silent room with no Internet in order to focus on a task, I would find something else to do instead. Or I would inflate one minor task into a serious project in itself, taking the whole night to craft the most beautiful introductory paragraph ever written.

I considered myself a failure and a fraud. I knew that every long-term assignment would become an all-nighter, sometimes two in a row, and my sleep deprivation would rob me of any ability to do serious work for several days. There was no longer any point in trying to start projects earlier, because they would always stretch infinitely outward into all-nighters anyway.

That malfunctioning mental component has left a wake of wreckage. It was a silent sabotage, a slow burn, but in the end it the consequences were no different than if I had been an alcoholic or learning disabled or anti-social. Like the functional alcoholic, I have developed a dozen clever adaptations to dodge and evade the worst harms. A car that doesn't turn left can still reach its destination by only making right turns.

So now I work with computers, which is a highly "reactionary" field that requires no major long term projects. Each broken computer is immediately fascinating to me and my quality standards are top-notch. I built up several external structures to remind me of all obligations--lunch supervision, substitute teaching, mobile lab reservations, etc. I have calendars, post-it notes, e-mails, and cell-phone reminders galore. I drift from one preferred organization method to another, although in crisis mode I drop all organization and pick up the pieces later.

Yet I remain the "absent minded professor." The "space cadet." I still have a reputation for not knowing when a task is "done" and just working on it infinitely until literally nothing can be improved any more. 

And I am impulsive. Socially awkward. Poor timing. I could never be a comedian, because my jokes would never be finished or tested, and my sense of timing is terrible. When is the right time to say something clever? When I think of it! Even if that topic of conversation was gone several topics ago.

And I am not completely able to avoid the long-term projects. When they come, I shrivel. They take me longer than they would take my colleagues. And they have have some cool features, but they won't look finished, because I didn't prioritize. Well, I did, but it all went out the window when I looked at the screen.

We all carry a burden. I'm thinking, why am I carrying mine? Don't they make, like, wheelbarrows for this crap? Time to go wheelbarrow shopping.

1 comment:

Matt of CG said...

I don't have what it takes to debate the transgender bathroom issue which is gaining traction in Facebook as a divisive issue. Please come back Jeff. It's time to come back.