Bag of Rocks

Many years ago, two intrepid scout masters took the young men from my church youth group on a week-long backpacking trip into an offshoot of the Rocky Mountains.  One of the guys in our group was physically smaller than the rest of us and had a chip on his shoulder to compensate.  As a result, and as matter of record, I didn’t have a lot of love for him.  In fact, he had spent most of the last two years pestering and tormenting me — his apparent goal being to start a fight with me (beat me up) to prove he was big and strong.   Earlier in the summer of this trip he succeeded in pushing me over the line while we were working a fund-raiser.  I finally got fed up with him, pinned him against a concrete-block wall, and proceeded to pummel him with all the malice I could generate.  Had his larger “cool-crowd” friends not intervened I probably would have hospitalized him.

Given this description of my feelings towards the kid, it might be surprising that this trip found me largely pitying him by the fourth day.  On the first day, all of us took off from the trail-head slightly overloaded with food and other necessaries.  Fresh legs and the excitement of what lay ahead of us compensated for the weight, and we reached our first stop tired but in good spirits.  Courtesy of the constant feedback gravity had provided over the course of the day, we all lightened our packs considerably by gorging on at least two days worth of food and praying we would be able to catch enough fish along the way to make up the difference.

As we progressed through the trip our legs got tired but our packs got lighter.  The two seemed to compensate each other since we managed to get to the end of our day without feeling any more or less tired than the day before… all of us except for the twerp.  Every day he seemed to get more and more tired and lag more and more behind the rest of the group.  This puzzled me, but seemed to be a source of endless mirth to his “friends” (incidentally the same ones that egged him on to the fight that they subsequently broke up).   By the morning of the fourth day he was exhausted, so we stopped earlier than planned for a break.  That’s when he discovered the rocks.

His “friends” had been sneaking small rocks into a large but formerly unused pocket in his pack.  They had added one here, one there, sneaking them in any time he wasn’t looking.  The end result was that his pack grew heaver and heavier as time wore on.  By the time he figured out what was going on there were probably 20 lbs of rocks in his bag.  For a 110 lb kid, that’s a substantial portion of the workable load.  Eventually, the extra weight and fatigue of hiking became too much for him to bear and he had to stop.  Luckily for him, he found the problem, corrected it, and managed to do quite well for the rest of the trip in spite of some choice words with his “friends.”

I was significantly larger than this kid, was carrying about the same basic load, and felt pretty tired by this point.  Watching him struggle was uncomfortable, and when it became clear that the difficulty was the result of mean-spirited actions by people he liked and trusted I pitied him.  The load of rocks he had gradually “picked up” along the trail had built up to the point where he couldn’t take the load any more.  Individually, the rocks were small and wouldn’t be considered a burden unless it had been wedged under your foot to irritate at every step.  Each rock that was added made only a small incremental addition to the weight, hiding the total contribution in the larger mass of the pack.

Now, why would I choose to reflect and write about this experience?  Sometimes I feel like I am hiking with a bag of rocks on my back.  As I trundle down the trail that is my life, I am constantly bumping up against little annoyances, inconveniences, issues, problems, frustrations, or demands on my time and talents – rocks.  At each juncture I am often faced with choosing one of a few possibilities: I can bypass the rock and leave it for someone else to stumble on and deal with,  I can react badly and make the problem someone else’s, or I can take care of the problem and clear the path for the next traveler.  Most of the time, I decide it’s a small thing, bend down, pick up the rock, and throw it in the bag.  The small service I render to those behind me on the trail makes it well worth the almost imperceptible extra weight I now carry.   I don’t grumble or use it as an excuse to further burden someone else.  My strength quickly adapts to the slightly heavier load, and I carry on.

Other times, there is no choice.  The rock simply must be added to my load either by force of others, the nature of the situation, or by my own (sometimes unwilling) conscience.  These are the most difficult rocks because they don’t necessarily bring with them the sense that I am sacrificing for someone else’s good.  They are simply an ugly addition to the weight I already carry.   Additionally, these rocks aren’t constrained to be relatively small.  They can be quite heavy.  However, I recognize that the only way to build strength is to take on progressively heavier loads so the muscles, bones, and connective tissues can react and rebuild stronger.  In this light, the burdens are lightened and I can generally pick them up with magnanimity and press on.

The difficulty comes when the rate at which I add to my load begins to exceed my ability to marshal and develop strength to carry it.  Sometimes the load becomes so heavy that even an additional grain of sand can be a soul-crushing weight.  My default reaction when the load becomes overwhelming is to want to dump it, and were I on a real trail, I’d simply step off of it a few feet and create a neat little pile of my accumulated rocks.  Unfortunately, life’s burdens aren’t so easily discarded.  Each one is tied to someone or something that would suffer if I were to let that rock drop back to the ground.  Many of the heaviest burdens would have eternal consequences should I fail to carry the load they represent.  This situation makes it nearly impossible to lighten the load in any tangible way.   I can complain and leverage my burden to add to someone else’s load, but this gives no real relief and I am left with no viable choice but to continue on; hoping I can find the strength to continue, and praying I won’t be asked to pick up any more rocks.

One of the more irritating aspects of having this load that I can’t drop is the fact that I have a tendency to become resentful and selfish when someone tries to add anything to the pile.  People seem to assume that because you are currently carrying a heavy load that you are strong enough to further add to it.  They want to give you their burdens, not realizing that the only way they can build strength is to continue carrying their own load.  They don’t, or can’t, see that while your strength is great, it is matched to your load and doesn’t leave much of a margin for additions.

Where I generally feel happy in lifting someone else’s load or clearing the path for those behind, a heavy burden poisons the joy that would otherwise have helped steel me for the task.  I no longer want to help.  I want to protect what strength I have left for myself.  I want to pass by the things that could trip up others and make it their problem.  I want to pass off my load to someone else rather than reach out and steady or lift someone else’s. I want things that I know I shouldn’t want.  That knowledge on its own is a burden.

So what do you do when you feel the crushing weight of responsibility sucking the life out of your soul?   Where do you turn when there is no clear path of escape?  How do you get help lifting a load you are unable to share?  How do you help people understand that while each small thing is individually easy to carry, there is a wellspring of others, both seen and unseen, that combine to make the load much worse than would be expected based on external appearances?  How do you carry on when the one Being capable of seeing things in their entirety seems distant and unconcerned?  How do you even admit to feeling that way when you know it isn’t true?

Mortal onlookers are always quick to suggest quick solutions or trivialize the burdens they are able to comprehend and fixate on.  I would they could see and feel from inside, but sharing glimpses through the means available tends to simply give them only a small piece of the puzzle they latch onto and use to try and explain the whole without sorting through the pile and taking time to put all the pieces together.  Even if they had that desire, it would be impossible, since some of the pieces are hidden even to me.

Were I not who I am, I think I might do as the twerp did when his pack became too heavy…  Simply stop in the trail, dump the load, and refuse to go on until I have strength to continue  That won’t work however, since the burden of the failure represented by those dropped rocks would far outweigh the load I now carry.  There is one, and only one, real solution to this dilemma, only one source for relief, and it doesn’t involve removing any of the weight.

We have been promised by the Lord that we will not be burdened with more than we can bear, tested beyond our strength, or asked to do something we cannot do.  These promises should give us hope and comfort, and will… if we allow them to.   The loads we carry are not unnoticed by our Father in Heaven and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Nor are they without purpose.  They are adjusted to our capacity, calibrated to strengthen us, designed to meet the Lord’s purposes, and necessary for our own eternal progression and salvation.   Should the load begin to actually be too heavy, the hand of the Lord will lend us strength until the burden lifts or our strength is sufficient.

While it won’t sell many self-help books, make an interesting movie, or lend itself to a new system for self-actualization, the solution boils down to something pretty basic: We must trust the Lord, simply continue on at the best pace we can manage, and try not to be so grouchy, judgmental, and selfish when someone asks us to help them pick up and carry another rock.

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