– Galatians 6:2
My best friend is Kelly Hastedt. We have been friends since middle school, over half our lives now. I was the maid of honor in her wedding. Although we haven’t lived in the same city since we were 16, we have always stayed close.
But Kelly and I are very different. In college, she majored in chemistry while I studied religion. She is very analytical while I am more of an intuitive person. We think our Myers Briggs profiles are ENFP and ISFJ–I’ll let you guess which is which.
But Kelly will always be my best friend, because we have been through so much together. Common interests and personality traits are great, but they are not what makes a true, lasting friendship. Since we were 12, Kelly and I have shared the good and the bad of our lives. We have borne one another’s burdens.
I recently watched the movie The Secret Life of Bees for the first time in a while. I was captivated all over again by my favorite character: May Boatwright. May lives with her sisters August and June in a Pepto Bismol pink house in South Carolina. The sisters got their names from their mother’s love of spring and summer. There used to be an April, too, but she died when they were young.
April and May were twins, and they had an incredibly strong bond. August said she swore that if April got a fat lip, May’s would swell up too. “When April died,” she said, “it was like the whole world became May’s twin.”
After April’s death, May became increasingly vulnerable to this profound empathy. It was as crippling as it was beautiful. When something bad would happen, May would sink into a deep depression. May bore everyone’s burdens.
In a way, May embodies what it says in 1 Corinthians 12:26–”If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” In the church, we believe that we are together one body in Christ–and so any sorrow is a shared sorrow, any joy a shared joy.
I recently started trying to educate myself on addiction and recovery. I just finished a book that was put out by Al-Anon. Al-Anon is the equivalent of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) for the families of alcoholics. Al-Anon came about when spouses, parents, children and more started to realize that they needed help as much as the alcoholic did. Alcoholism is a family disease, a community disease.
Members of Al-Anon follow the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions as adapted from AA. They commit to their own recovery from resentment and anger. Their recovery is central to the alcoholic’s recovery and to the rehabilitation of a broken family system. When alcoholism affects our families and our communities, we cannot isolate the alcoholic and expect them to recover alone; we bear one another’s burdens.
I want to tell you about two different races and then make a point.
The first race: this coming March, I and several other members of Centenary’s staff will participate in the Color Run. The Color Run is a 5K that is not timed; you could walk it if you wanted. Participants wear white t-shirts, and at certain stations along the route, volunteers and staff blast the runners with color so that at the end everyone is a tie-dyed, laughing mess. It’s all about encouraging healthy habits in a fun, collaborative, non-competitive environment.
The second race: Last summer, a high school distance runner made headlines when she stopped mid-race to help a fallen opponent. When sophomore Arden McMath collapsed on the track, junior Meghan Vogel helped her to her feet and carried her across the finish line. Meghan was perplexed when she was hailed as a hero; she was just doing what anyone would do, she said. Meghan made sure that Arden finished ahead of her, and the duo came in 14th and 15th place.
The image of a race is one that comes up in scripture as a metaphor for the spiritual journey. This has always bothered me, perhaps because my athletic career ended about the time our softball and basketball leagues went from being recreational to being competitive. But I feel better about things when I think about this race as kind of like the Color Run with an element of carrying each other across the finish line. Hebrews 12:1 says, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”–not the race that is set before me against you, but before us. Nobody can rightly say they have finished the race until everyone has crossed the finish line. We must wait for one another.
Of course, although we can and should help one another, we cannot run the race for anyone else. Bearing one another’s burdens does not mean we get to fix one another or save one another. It means that we are saved and healed together. Bearing one another’s burdens is not about taking control of another person’s life; it is about mutually admitting that there are many things we cannot control.
Let’s go back to my mention of AA and Al-Anon. The first step in AA, which Al-Anon also uses, is to admit that we are powerless over alcohol. The very core of the program is the cultivation of a reliance and a dependence upon a higher power. AA and Al-Anon are not about controlling alcoholism; they are about realizing we cannot control it.
As it turns out, when the family and friends of alcoholics try to control the problem, it can actually make it worse. Trying to correct behavior is often futile in part because alcoholism is a disease, not a moral failing. Protecting an alcoholic from the consequences of his or her behavior may prevent him or her from seeking help. And allowing oneself to fall into self-pity is a path to resentment and bitterness.
Admitting we are powerless over the problem might at first seem like a defeat. But if you look at it another way, it is, in fact, liberating. Obviously we can’t control the problem, or else it wouldn’t be there. When we own up to that reality, we free ourselves from trying to do the impossible.
The next steps in AA and Al-Anon call us to believe that a higher power could return us to sanity and then to make the decision to turn our lives and wills over to that higher power. If bearing one another’s burdens means trying to fix one another, or if we allow ourselves truly to feel each other’s sorrows without relying on God, we will surely all be driven mad.
That is what happened to May Boatwright in The Secret Life of Bees. Although she was in no position to control anyone’s pain, she internalized it all in such a way that the pain began to control her. Already emotionally crippled from her sister’s death, in the movie we see May paralyzed by the sorrows she encounters. Finally it becomes too much, and she takes her own life. In a note she leaves for August and June, she says, “I’m tired of carrying around the weight of the world. I’m just going to lay it down now.”
Friends, here is the good news: even as we are called to carry one another’s burdens, we do not have to wait to lay them down. We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper, but we are not without a mother. The whole world is our twin whose sorrows and joys we share, but we are not without a father. In the body of Christ, we are members of one another, held together not by our own strength but by the love of our divine parent.
Jesus carried all of our burdens when he carried the cross. Let us wait for one another and carry each other to the foot of that cross. There, together, we can lay our burdens down.
Sarah S. Howell