The weight of the world

It’s Thursday night again and I’m the last one awake.

Like clockwork, my eyes feel heavier and my shoulders sag a little lower as I lean over the desk. I glance over at my planner, which I use religiously, to check how many items remain on my to-do list: too many. Shuffling into the kitchen, I refill my coffee mug. I think to myself, it’s going to be another late night.

Minutes blur into hours as I complete task after task, but it never feels like I’m finished. At some point, I know I should sleep. Even after doing so much, the weight of all that I couldn’t accomplish follows me as I walk to my bedroom.

I’ve often been told that I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, that I’m like Atlas, a figure in Greek mythology who was charged with holding the universe on his back. I believe that we all walk around, lifting invisible burdens above our heads. Although some are heavier than others, we are all overwhelmed with the responsibility of dragging them here and there.

The temptation to put those burdens down is strong, but the fear of what that means is often stronger.

I see this behavior in my classmates all the time. We collect stressors like they’re trophies, and hoist them on our shoulders as if they’re on display. We take on more and more until the load gets so heavy that we’re stuck in one place, sinking into the ground and fumbling for an escape.

On those late nights when it seems like I have everything to do with no time at all, the metaphorical burden manifests itself physically. I can feel my shoulders and upper back grow tense as the day melts into night. I don’t feel productive unless I get everything done. And it seems impossible, but a lot of students take the stress as painful encouragement.

After all, diamonds are made under pressure.

So, in our eyes, taking on more than what is healthy or manageable turns into being successful. At some point, we lose sight of what it really means to accomplish something. The weight pressing down on our shoulders becomes an indicator that we are working towards a goal. If we’re not overwhelmed with stress, we’re not doing it right.

However, by succumbing to this mindset we overlook an important distinction.

Diamonds crushed under pressure are called glitter. People crushed under pressure are called broken.

Realizing this has changed the way I look at my workload. Not being able to finish everything in one night doesn’t mean that I failed. It means that I set an unrealistic goal. Getting eight hours of sleep and spending time with my family will make me feel more accomplished than getting through an entire to-do list ever will.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself if taking on another extracurricular, responsibility or task is worth giving up time spent on your own health.

One by one, I have removed burdens that worsen my posture. I’d rather stand tall with a few meaningful responsibilities, than pressed low to the floor, encumbered by an albatross that I cannot handle.

That word: “albatross” has two contradictory meanings that together say something important. It is defined as both a type of bird, and as an extreme burden. To me, birds have always represented otherworldly freedom and happiness as creatures who fly untethered to any stress.

I’d bet if we put down the weight of the world, we could too.