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Shouldering, shedding and sharing burdens

Maj. Brandon Ray, 436th Maintenance Squadron commander, official photo.

Maj. Brandon Ray, 436th Maintenance Squadron commander, official photo.

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --

The word burden often carries a negative connotation. The word burden often conjures up thoughts of hardship and despair. Years ago, my greatest source of inspiration for leadership, “The Book,” changed how I viewed the concept of burdens. My favorite chapter provides three major takeaways on the concept: some burdens are meant to be shouldered; some burdens are meant to be shed; some burdens are meant to be shared.

What does it mean to shoulder a burden? Merriam-Webster defines the word burden as something that is a duty, obligation or responsibility. The etymology of the word is derived from Old English, possessing the meaning of a load that is borne or carried; a weight, charge, duty. To shoulder a burden, one must fulfill the obligations or duties designed for his or her unique journey. Our respective oaths of office provide us with the burden of supporting and defending our Constitution. Though many of us share similar burdens in our private lives, some of them are designed specifically for us to shoulder as individuals. It is my responsibility to uphold the covenant of my vows I shared with my wife until death do us part. It is my responsibility, not society’s, to raise my sons as men of character. It is my charge to teach them, through example and experience, right from wrong. It is my responsibility to well and faithfully discharge the duties of my office because I took those obligations freely. Despite our collective journeys, there are some things we must do for ourselves.

So what does it mean to shed a burden? To shed a burden is to get rid of the things preventing you from becoming the best version of yourself. Shedding these burdens is key to the next season of growth. Why does the dog shed its fur? The dog rids itself of the damaged hair to make room for new growth; the new growth ensures the dog is best prepared for the coming season.  Holding onto what isn’t required or failing to adapt to what is needed in the future, leaves us ill-equipped to thrive in the coming season. The lobster experiences its greatest growth potential when it sheds its shell, which often coincides with most vulnerable point of its journey. Conversely, remaining in the wrong environment will limit growth potential. I once observed a shark in a fish tank. A shark that would naturally grow to eight feet in the ocean, grew to no more than six inches in the fish tank. The shark’s environment limited it from reaching its fullest potential. Our journeys often mimic the lobster shedding its shell or the shark in the fish tank:  transformation often coincides with vulnerability or placing ourselves in the right environment.

My favorite concept of burdens is the notion that we share in each other’s burdens: the essence of servant leadership. There are some burdens that weren’t meant to be carried, much less carried alone. We often carry these burdens alone because we don’t want to bother anyone or because we believe no one understands our circumstances. What if I told you that it has been proven throughout science, nature and history that there is strength in numbers? Just as the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the lion is the pride, the strength of mankind is the community. Individually, each person is capable but when collaborating, the potential is unlimited. I remember being in a gym doing a bench press and not being able to finish the last rep. I was always annoyed by how little support my spotter needed to provide for me to push through the finish. Despite my willingness to do it alone, at some point I had to accept that I couldn’t carry that load on my own. I was able to finish that last rep because someone recognized that the weight was too heavy for me to manage on my own and provided assistance and encouragement to help me push through. Life works the same way; sometimes we need to rely on others to push through. The beautiful thing about life is that we get to experience it together. We all have unique experiences that equip us to share in each other’s burdens.

In closing, I hope this final excerpt from a letter written several thousand years ago provides you encouragement as you continue your journey: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.”