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The Things We Carry – How Much Do They Define Us?

They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried. — Tim O’Brien, "The Things They Carried"

I carry three kinds of lip balm, an old letter from a good friend and a talisman from a Buddhist temple.

I carry regrets from all the times I made my dreams a second priority, behind my expectations of others. I carry nostalgia for my hometown and an insatiable hunger to see the world. I carry love and I carry sorrow.

The things we carry define us, just as much as we define them.

There’s a saying that you can tell a lot about a woman from the contents of her purse, and it’s not incorrect. Her choice of lipstick color, picture collection and knick knacks all hold some kind of meaning, whether conscious or not.

We often like to pose questions such as, "If your house was burning down, what items would you save?" Or, "If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?" The objects we value all have a story or a motive that can be read, like a little background of the owner.

Often, we feel an indescribable attachment to certain items. Everyday items, like photographs or trinkets, hold value because of the emotional significance we assign them.

It’s only when we are asked to describe exactly why we like the things we do that the deeper meaning begins to emerge.

Lip balm is a necessity for me because my lips are always dry. I’m constantly thirsty for new information, new experiences and new challenges.

I keep letters from my friends because I’m a nostalgic person and I have a hard time moving on from the past. The Buddhist talisman reminds me that I have the strength and capability to achieve what I put my mind to doing.

When I talk about carrying things, though, I don’t just mean what you hold in your pockets. Often, the most important things we carry cannot be heard, seen or touched. They are the silent burdens or joys that follow us everywhere, waiting in the back of our minds for a stray thought to touch upon them.

We all carry emotional cargo

How many times have you noticed the physical effects you have on a loved one who suffers from a condition such as depression or anxiety?

How often do you see the hunched back and tired eyes of a coworker and assume he or she must be going through a hard time?

The weight of responsibilities, regrets, grudges and guilt can begin to crush not only our emotional well-being, but also our physical health.

For many years, I suffered severe back problems and breathing issues, including asthma. At the time, I was living in a situation where I carried the expectations of those around me, as I was determined to fulfill them. I spent sleepless nights battling guilt over sacrificing my decisions for those I felt obliged to follow.

Our emotional cargo builds so quietly and steadily that often, we don’t even notice how heavy our weight is. Day after day, week after week, year after year, it slowly mounts on our backs, our hearts and the recesses of our minds.

Over time, we begin to wonder why we are so tired or why we feel so emotionally worn-out. We feel the consequences, but don’t know the root of the suffering. The question is, how do we solve this? How do we begin to unload such a burden?

Freeing ourselves requires honest reflection

The answer lay in introspection; we must discover the root before we can begin to weed it out. And, that’s exactly what these burdens are: weeds that steal energy and growth from the positive influences.

This can be a painful process, full of self-deception and suppressed emotions. It is crucial, however, that we remain brutally honest with ourselves.

What keeps you up at night? What is the source of your guilt, your sorrow, your pain or your frustration? Maybe you were wronged by a friend, or maybe, you’re the one who was wrong.

Maybe you lost a loved one, or maybe, you harbor guilt about not being the person you want to be. These are questions only you can answer.

Once we identify the source, we can begin to remove ourselves from its influence. We can pull the weeds from the garden so we can nourish the flowers and fruits of our constructive endeavors.

When I moved to Brazil, I left my burdens behind. All the pain, the responsibilities and the expectations slipped from my shoulders. My back and my breathing problems began to resolve themselves, and my overall health improved.

I still carry a few things -- a small guilt for time I can’t get back and sorrow for the relationships that were lost in the process —, but I’m always working to free myself more, a little bit every day.

Sometimes, we need to be carried

It’s important to note that beyond the things we carry, there are things that carry us. Those things are hope, joy, confidence and faith. They are the little miracles that get us through the day. They are there when our legs fail and we need a little help to get back on our feet.

There is no shame in being carried; we don’t need to be Atlas, carrying the entire world on our shoulders. Sometimes, it’s better to let go a little bit and ask for help or draw on an external source of strength.

My determination carries me.

Whether you carry your life or your life carries you, it's important you are going in the right direction.

Although the things we carry may define us, we are equally capable of defining them. In this journey of life, we have too many challenges and too far to travel to carry more than what will help us succeed. Now is the time to unload the dead weight, set a course and put our best feet forward.