“Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ….Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry his own load.” ~ Galatians 6:2-5
I’ve often found it contradictory for Paul to suggest that we “carry each other’s burdens” but 3 verses later state that “each one should carry his own load.”
Helpfully, someone once pointed out that those phrases use different words — “burdens” vs. “load.” I don’t know what the original Greek meant (maybe someday?!), but in context the words might mean something like this:
To use the terminology I’ve been learning in Health Psychology, the “zero” point would be homeostasis — the point at which we’re under a reasonable amount of stress. “Load” would be the homeostatic load — consisting of the things that we can reasonably manage ourselves and should, therefore, carry ourselves. And “burden” would be the allostatic load — consisting of “chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine responses that result from repeated or chronic stress” (Taylor). Burden, understood this way, is a problem often beyond the control of the burdened individual and is not something that should be carried alone.
What does this say about compassion?
I recently asked a friend who teaches in the inner city how to emotionally/spiritually handle situations when her students disclosed information about personal, violent, or traumatic experiences. It could be easy to get so attached that your heart breaks and you’re not helpful. But it could also be easy, especially in the long-term, to get so detached that your heart hardens and you’re not helpful.
The trick, my friend said, is to do neither — to not get too attached and to not get too detached. To not carry loads and burdens but to carry burdens, knowing that it’s not our hands carrying the burdens but the hands of Christ using us to be his hands and feet. And to pray. Definitely to pray.
What it boils down to is this:
1) Consider if the situation is a load or a burden.
2) If it’s someone’s load: maybe help, but they do need to exercise some responsibility. If it’s your load: maybe seek/accept help, but you do need to exercise some responsibility.
3) If it’s someone’s burden: help them carry it! If it’s your burden: let someone help you carry it!
That’s the beauty of community. “We get to carry each other…”