Let Me Lighten Your Load: Carrying the Emotional Burdens in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”
by Rebecca Teel
Tim O’Brien took the burden upon himself to tell the stories of his fellow soldiers and relieve himself of not only his emotional burdens, but theirs as well. Asking someone to give up the load they are used to carrying can be traumatic to the carrier and difficult for the one asking. But in “The Things They Carried” Tim O’Brien is volunteering to ‘hump’ the soldiers’ grief, loneliness, fear and shame and all that he asks in return is that the reader understand why it had to be done this way. The narrator, revealed to be soldier and future writer Tim O’Brien, begins by describing in excruciating detail the weight of the physical items that the grunts had to carry. What average reader could say that before reading the first chapter, “The Things They Carried”, they knew that jungle boots weighed 2.1 pounds or that “it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier” (O’Brien 3)? From the beginning, the reader understands that they will be taken on a journey that will affect them. How it will affect them is to be borne out in their response to reading later chapters. It is also in this first chapter that the reader meets Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and it is realized he is carrying the weight of “responsibility for the lives of his men” (O’Brien 5), a weight he is sometimes not sure he is equipped to carry. And after the death of Ted Lavender during one of Cross’ escapist revelries, he too realizes the weight of his responsibility. “He was a soldier, after all” (O’Brien 24). And henceforth, he was going to carry that weight on more determined shoulders, “…he was determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence” (O’Brien 25). However, the reader quickly realizes what is really going on; he is trying to deal with a newly acquired, very weighty item – guilt. This is expounded upon in the chapter entitled “Love”. Jimmy Cross meets up with now published writer Tim O’Brien and they rehash old times and catch up on their lives since the war. Jimmy Cross opens up to Tim O’Brien, almost confessing: “At one point, I remember, we paused over a snapshot of Ted Lavender, and after a while Jimmy rubbed his eyes and said he’d never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death. It was something that would never go away, he said quietly…” (O’Brien 27). Tim O’Brien senses his friend’s plight and affirms that he also felt that way about certain things. The writer later tells Jimmy Cross that he wants to write about this experience and Cross agrees on one condition; make me out to be a good guy, he says. Why come to a writer to unburden yourself, knowing they pull from their own lives to build their characters and stories? Perhaps Jimmy Cross feels that by shifting this particular weight to someone who tends to share his own weights with the world that it would lessen his struggle to carry it, possibly even freeing him of it. The psychological burdens carried by the soldiers were acquired during the war and were enormously heavy in that context. But like astronauts coming back down to Earth, that weight became even heavier and more cumbersome with their attempts to adjust to life back home. “Speaking of Courage” is the chapter that explores the weight of survivor’s guilt. Often ascribed to plane crash and natural disaster survivors, survivor’s guilt is the distorted notion that somehow the one surviving should not have survived and perhaps there was something they could have done to prevent everyone else’s demise. In this chapter Norman Bowker is back home in Iowa driving around the town lake on July 4th weekend contemplating the genesis of his current state. He is lonely, wanting to speak with someone about what he is feeling: “If Sally had not been married, or if his father were not such a baseball fan, it would have been a good time to talk” (O’Brien 141). Yet he feels detached from the world he is in now, repetitively circling the lake, not making any progress. He is stuck in time as a teenage soldier and everyone else has moved on with their lives; they progressed and he has not. Even small changes, like ordering a burger at the local drive-up has Norman Bowker ready to share his troubles with a detached voice speaking through an intercom, screwed to a post (O’Brien 152).
In what can be referred to as an accompanying chapter “Notes”, Tim O’Brien reveals that the previous chapter, “Speaking of Courage”, had been written in 1975 at the behest of Norman Bowker. Around the spring of that year, he received a letter from Bowker who in it “described the problem of finding a meaningful use for his life after the war” (O’Brien 155). He had come home to loving parents, job opportunities, even schooling. However, to him things seemed “too abstract, too distant, with nothing real or tangible at stake, certainly not the stakes of a war” (O’Brien 155). The stakes of the war were so high in fact, that you came home having lost what you never thought you could-dignity, morality, sanity-and carrying things you never meant to bring back-shame, guilt, loss of faith. When Kiowa went under the muck in front of him, Norman Bowker began carrying the ghost of his fallen comrade, along with the previously mentioned survivor’s guilt. Feeling directly responsible, Bowker bore this weight alone and silently but not purposefully or spitefully. Who was he to tell and where was he to go? It was then that Tim O’Brien received Norman Bowker’s long, disjointed, seventeen page handwritten letter. Once again, a brother-in-arms was coming to him with a load that was weighing him down. Tim O’Brien took it upon himself to take up Norman’s load and carry it into his writing, which had become his way of unburdening himself. Unfortunately, Bowker was “crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities” of life back home and hung himself (O’Brien 200).
In this same chapter, O’Brien states: “I never spoke much about the war…yet ever since my return I had been talking about it virtually nonstop through my writing” (O’Brien 157). Telling stories becomes his natural way of talking out his feelings about the war, feelings during the war and feelings since the war. While O’Brien relates: “I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t”, in the same paragraph he explains exactly why it can be considered such when he says, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself.” (O’Brien 158). One can sense that this is his outlet to relieve his emotional burdens, to search for forgiveness and to help others with their loads. Soldiers like Jimmy Cross and Norman Bowker who could not see for themselves a way to release the weight of knowing what they knew, go to someone they see as handling it better than they are at the time. And Tim O’Brien, sensing that they need a voice, a forum, an outlet for all that they felt, takes it upon himself to include their heartaches and pains, shame and tragedy with his own in his writing. Humans do not like to be weighed down. They want to be free of burden. But carry things they must: American women and purses; African village women with packs on their heads poised like models on a runway in Milan; nomads carry their homes; and posterity carries the sins of the past. Yet, when it comes to emotional burden-grief, terror, love, longing-empathy kicks in and people tend to want to take on that burden for a fellow man. “The Things They Carried” explores the ideas of what it is like to struggle under physical and emotional burdens, how this struggle is dealt with in the pressure cooker of war and how those burdens change a person as they continue to carry them. This work looks at the effort of one man to take on the burdens of many to try to ease their struggle or, in the case of Norman Bowker, pass on what it feels like as one succumbs to the struggle. The reader is made to feel their burdens and see what it was that made them so weighty and difficult to bear. Tim O’Brien was not afraid to take on the task of making these things known. It is reminiscent of a quotation in the Bible book of Matthew, Chapter 11, and Verses 28-30: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden light.” Tim O’Brien shares the things he and his fellow soldiers carried with us, essentially asking to us to help with this struggle, too.
“The Things They Carried” is broken down to its simplest form on the publisher’s information page in the very beginning of the book: “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all incidents, names and characters are imaginary.” Nevertheless, its lesson about emotional burdens and the need to share them in any way that lightens a load hopefully does not go unheeded.
O’Brien, Tim “The Things They Carried”. New York, Broadway Books. 1990
“The Holy Bible”, New King James Version. Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers. 1990