I’ve struggled with this realization for a while, that being a social creature, being part of a community doesn’t only entail opting into dinner parties or coffee meetups, but in reality, requires you to not only take on burdens from other people but let yourself be a burden to others.
For some reason, the feeling that others won’t mind taking on my burdens, or might even enjoy offering support has become very foreign to me. Maybe it’s being a denizen of a very transactional world, maybe it’s my fear that I won’t be able or - much worse - will be obligated to reciprocate when I can’t or don’t want to. Being a burden feels like opening an infinite can of worms. But I also know it’s at the core of what it means to be social. There is no community outside of this burdensome reciprocity. Maybe the can of worms is hospitality itself.
Do you allow yourself to be a burden?
The Garden of Earthly Delights is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
When you are a burden, you are giving others the opportunity to give love which blesses both people. This is a good and beautiful thing. But, If you haven't been a generous person, then don't expect people to shoulder your burdens....They probably won't. My lastest piece of advice to my children is to make yourself valuable to all social groups you are in. Be valuable to you spouse, to your immediate famly, to your extended family, to your employer, to your friends, and community/church. You will then count on them to share your burdens when it comes. There are countless opportunties to "make yourself valuable". These opportunities often appear to be extra work, and they are. But if you view at these opportunities to make yourself valuable, they are easier to take on. Sharing burdens creates intimacy -- Something sorely missing today!
A wonderful question!
I find I want to pay people when they help me. Or give them something of value. So that the burden I bring is worth their while. As you say, it's transactional.
So I don't easily allow myself to be a burden.
For me, I think I'm often too proud to ask for help. I'll admit that. But that kind of pride is a luxury only the relatively well off can afford. We all are one disabling sickness or injury away from dependency of a type we probably can't spend our way out of. Aging has a similar humbling impact. I will be served by somebody I can't repay - even if that reality doesn't hit me until I am old and my spouse or children have to change my diapers or keep me from wandering into traffic : )
The idea of a more traditional society where more is expected of neighbors and friendships is attractive and repelling. Belonging to a place/people that you can't easily get away from and that meet many of your needs is attractive. But people/place not easy to get away from has a big downside. The loss of freedom, the necessity of submitting to many things you find irksome and stifling. It's a conundrum.
I never "allowed" myself to become a burden, but I found out later that I was a burden to people due to my behavior, which was causing other people a lot of stress. I suspect that is the case with a lot of people. We are burdens whether or not we know it, and that's just part of human nature.
My wife would attest to the fact that I can often be a burden (I like to control things)... but I also very much enjoy doing things for my family. I like them depending on me, perhaps too much. We're currently in the midst of a long journey through eastern Europe, and it can be stressful at times sharing each others burdens, but overall it's been wonderful. Currently we're in Budapest, and I can say unequivocally that it's the most beautiful and interesting city I've ever visited... and I've been to a lot of places!
When you say "burden" do you mean asking for help? I am usually pretty good about asking friends and family for help, but also being very open about my ability and hope to help them.
A good example; my parents are in their mid-seventies and I find myself helping to put in and take out their AC window units, rototilling their garden before they plant it in spring, grabbing items they might need from the store while I'm out, etc. I also feel very comfortable asking them (particularly my Dad) if I can borrow tools, get his assistance in painting, have them watch my baby for a spell while I complete a task, etc.
I think you mentioned that in modern society we don't "need" each other anymore and I think that's largely right. While we don't "need" each other, having those bonds and entanglements is basically the bulk of most human relationships and where culture and intimacy comes from. I tell myself that if I need and WANT help, my family and friends should be the first I consider in reaching out to because if I were to be asked, I'd want to help in whichever way I could. Reciprocity affirms our bonds.
"Do you allow yourself to be a burden?" no
Or, to be allowed to acquire an obligation - from the person or the universe - by being allowed to help, is a blessing. And, to give another the same by allowing them to help, is a blessing. Either way, we should give and receive help fearlessly. Hospitality is a moral imperative and at the heart of civilisation.
I feel intensely guilty on the rare occasions when I become reliant on others – such as during a bad illness or recovering from a surgery – partially because I fear that I cannot repay the "kindness debt" to a sufficient degree. For some reason, my mind interprets all of the extra effort that others set aside for me during these hard moments to be like incurring debt; presumably, I will pay off this debt in the future by helping my temporary caretakers should they ever fall into trouble (this is likely assumed by all). But I struggled to let myself be a burden in these situations because I always wished that I could "prepay" my caretakers with special care of some kind so that I did not feel as guilty. Maybe I am trapped in a transactional mindset.
On a related topic, I really like this Friar's explanation of how to accept sometimes being a burden to those who love you. I found it helpful even though I am not a practicing Catholic by any means. Though it did not solve all of my problems, it does offer a healthy way to process the kind of guilt that Alex mentions.
In her old age, my mother-in-law - a lovely woman with a giving-not-taking nature almost to a fault - made not being a burden to her daughters the driving motive of her remaining years. She was hugely missed .
A J Burden? Jokes. Being communal entails a lot of obligations and obligations under a Russell conjugation is a burden. Relying on others is what is it to be social whether its through knowledge, assistance, etc it's only once that becomes an abuse of social relations (being pushy) or taking advantage. People with face tattoos, get in there!
Absolutely not! Not outside my family anyways. Any vulnerability shown to the larger world just brings me one step closer to be placed on an ice floe in the name of “efficiency and budgetary constraints”
Alex, could you float me $50 until payday? I’ll get you back Sat. morning. I promise. 😉
It depends on the type and extent of burdens you are talking about and who you are sharing/bearing it with/for. There are actual tasks such as helping others move or taking care of the sick; then there's commiserating about emotional issues and problems. The later requires openness and a willingness to be vulnerable.
And as Justin D touched on, you unconsciously can be a burden. I've had my issues in the past with passive aggressiveness and chronic lateness.
The importance of listening to others about their problems and being at least somewhat vulnerable and open about sharing your own hit me hard this summer and unfortunately way too late in life. An old co-worker friend of mine had been suffering from physical ailments and depression for quite a while and she eventually took her own life last May. We'd had a falling out over 2 decades ago and hadn't spoken to each other since. I really hadn't thought of her much in the interim, but when I found out what happened, there hasn't been a day that I hadn't wished I could of helped her. Her passing has somehow softened me up a bit and made me more empathetic. A gift she provided me that I wished I would of been able to use with her.
So yes, I now try to allow myself to share at least some of my burdens. It enhances connection with others, which is something everyone needs, even if they don't like to admit it.
I started answering this question but then realised I was talking about 'help' rather than 'burdens'. There are people I enjoy helping, partly because I like them and partly because it makes me feel wanted and useful and part of a mini, cooperative society. It's like living in Toy Town where people have useful jobs (butcher, baker, candlestick maker) and naturally help each other. And perhaps the people I like to help like helping me back.
However, while being asked to help is often welcomed, being asked to take on a burden never is since the word itself implies something you would rather not do. And any considerate person who is able to put himself in someone else's shoes couldn't help but feel bad about burdening someone. Then nothing would be any fun as this awareness would weigh on you.
Have you heard of the Benjamin Franklin effect? Briefly, it says that asking people for help causes them to like you more. Research seems to back this up:
“As long as a person likes the recipient of the favor, feels that he is deserving, or that he would probably return the favor, the person is able to offer himself ample justification for having performed the favor. There are instances, however, when an individual is ‘put on the spot’ and winds up performing a favor for someone he does not hold in high esteem, a complete stranger, or even someone he actively dislikes. In such instances, he has insufficient justification for performing the favor since he does not particularly like the person and has no reason to expect that the person would reciprocate the favor.
Accordingly, if an individual performs a favor for a person about whom he initially has neutral or negative feelings, he may come to like that person as a means of justifying his having performed the favor. This prediction is derived from the theory of cognitive dissonance… If one does a favor for a disliked person, the knowledge of that act is dissonant with the cognition that one does not like the recipient of the favor. That is, since one does not usually benefit persons whom one dislikes, the situation is dissonance arousing. One way in which a person might reduce this dissonance is to increase his liking for the recipient of his favor, i.e., come to feel that he was deserving of the favor.”
— From “Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour”, by Jecker & Landy (1969)
When does a favour become a burden? That depends.
Reciprocation in some form seems necessary.
Just like Sanjay said, I have almost no problem being a 'burden' to my close ones. The further away I move in my circles it's getting harder. I think this is the default human state.
However, the question made me think about couchsurfing. Before airbnb, and all these new 'uber-for-whatever-platforms' there was a platform called 'couchsurfing'. Doing just that. Sharing couches, rooms, or whole houses. For free. With strangers. Based on an online profile. We didn't have any kids back then, had spare room in our house, decided to get out of the comfort zone and try to be extra social. As many here seem to agree, it is way easier to help others than to accept being helped, especially when dealing with complete strangers. So we hosted a lot, made friends with a lot of nice people, and even went on to visit some of them back, when they invited us. The hard part started when we decided to go surfing couches. Long story short, after you are being hosted by a bunch of strangers you begin to embrace it, and don't feel like a burden anymore. Only then I realized my upbringing was seeped in transactionality and I didn't see any other way of functioning in the world. I think primarily for me it was the fact that having so little to offer back, I refused to ask for anything in the first place. Also the pride of not having to rely on anybody, I can go my own way, I can tie my own shoes, I'm independent. And then... couchsurfing opened my eyes on this new world where there is suddenly a social component. And it isn't awkward. And then... back to the free market, came airbnb, came the baby, seems safer even if we have to pay, now we can afford anyway, and so on, so we're back at the beginning where I once again feel like we would be a burden if I had to ask somebody for a place to crash for a couple of nights. The upside is that I know now that it's like riding a bike. It will all come back if I give it another try. and you can do it too!
I logged in again after ten years to see if it is still working. It does. But it seemed to me quite different, having more like a dating platform vibe, and not quite free anymore. Maybe it's just my dating platform paranoia. So, you can do it, maybe riding a different bike this time around
I really try not to.
When I do eventually become vulnerable I often regret it immediately and battle the associated shame. It's kind of odd, because at the same time how I process things in general is through talking (even to myself sometimes—I make extra sure I am alone when I do.)
In some ways, I feel that it is shitty to, essentially, ask someone to carry your burdens. The main reason in my mind is that people have their own burdens to deal with already. Life is hard enough with just those, I don't want to be the one adding to them. Even if they might be perfectly willing.
On the flip side of this, I am more than happy to listen to people about their issues. The caveat being that it is people I know and care about. I see it as a noble thing to do. But only if I do it. Not anyone else. However, I have been in situations where I have listened to randos talk about things that they bothered with by accident. Like, I wasn't trying to be nosy or self important. I merely asked how their day was.
This is not really related to the question, but I see encounters like above as a consequence of our time. I think there are a significant amount of people who no one ever asks how their doing. So when someone does, even a stranger, the flood gates open.
Back to your question. I know there are likely a lot of flaws in my thinking on my place in the burden economy, or whatever. I do not want to be a burden (I think this is true for a lot of people). But I also don't see how I can't be at times.
Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts.