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The Burden (a Scholastic Award winning short story)

It was the first of January. Benjamin always woke up excited to chase the stars, but today he felt different. Chasing the stars was the last thing he wanted to do. His mind was fogged; his joyful thoughts were consumed with sentiments of rage and distaste for living. It was almost as if, during his long, empty sleep the previous night, Pandora’s Box had been opened all over again, exposing all of the pain and hardships that were previously not there. He reached for his glasses, hoping once he could see clearly, he could think clearly. He walked out of his room to his father in a suit and his mother in her pajamas, frying a couple of eggs. “How are you, sweety?” asked his mother in a gentle, almost patronizing tone. “I am good,” Benjamin replied monotonously. He looked down at his feet and smiled, seeing his fluffy black dog sit at his feet, whimpering with joy. These were the little things that brought him pure, undiluted happiness. Benjamin’s father told him to have a good day at school and was soon out the door. Everything seemed dull; everything wore the disguise of transparency; everything had the illusion of lacking purpose. He did not feel like himself, he was living a stranger’s life through their eyes and with their thoughts. Something was off. Different. “Benjamin. Benjamin. BENJAMIN.” His brother was staring at him and started speaking, but the words went right through his red ears. Angry at the world, saddened by his own thoughts, and devoured by a feeling of general disappointment, Benjamin picked up his backpack and walked out the door onto the cold streets of Amsterdam. His bike had been locked on the fence around the small brownstone. It glistened with frost. The canal reflected the white, cloud filled sky. He made his way down the cobblestone streets, passing by people conversing gleefully, enjoying their first of many cups of black coffee. He felt a certain way but couldn’t explain it, not even to himself. He would never talk about it, fearing he would break down crying. Boys don’t cry. He won’t cry. He arrived at his school and passively sat through a day of classes. His friends asked him what was wrong. He said he was tired. But was he tired? Or was he tired of living? Was he tired of enduring a life that was gray? Be grateful for what you have. You have everything a boy would want and more. You have it all. How could you be tired of it? Most boys in the world would envy you, yet you are resentful, ungrateful, oblivious to your privilege. His conscience was attacking his heart; the voice in his head dismissed his feelings and emotions. On his way home from school, the clouds dismantled, and poured rain down on the streets of Amsterdam. His rusty chains squealed and squeaked, the air in his beaten up tires whistled through the small holes as he pedaled. Benjamin hated himself. Every part of him; his body, his feelings. He felt as though he was a burden to all who cared for him. He felt he was a waste. Why was he living? As he rocked up and down over the cobblestones, he forgot how to breathe. All the ideas, excitement, fears, frustrations, and emotions that were begging to be expressed, were suppressed. It suffocated him. Boys don’t cry. Boys don’t talk about their feelings. Being emotional is for girls. Be tough. Have some grit, his father always told him. But why? Why could he not feel happiness for once? Did he ever even know happiness? Or did he become accustomed to a sensation that he defined as happiness, but really wasn’t? He tried to fix himself. He cut open his flesh to tear out the things he hated, he starved himself, he ran till he was in pain. He became fixated on the parts of him that he, and only he, noticed. It is in your head, he was told. You are crazy, he was told. No one understood him. All he wanted was to know happiness. To know a worry free life. To look around and know that he was loved, unconditionally. He knew that if he told his parents how he felt, they would reassure him that he was loved. They would reassure him that he was perfect the way he was. But were they reassuring him, or themselves? Were they reassuring themselves that they had not raised a monster? All of the feelings that had been stirring up inside of his mind for so long began to bubble and break free. All of the self loathing he endured began to enlarge. All of his frustrations were aggravated. No one understands me, he thought. No one gets it. Why do I, someone who has everything, – the coolest technology, a beautiful home, a loving family – have so much self pity? Why do I justify hating everything about myself and my life when I have so much? These were the questions he asked himself every day. He knew if he told his mother and his father the ways he felt, they would return his gaze with expressions of worry, confusion, astonishment. They would surely think he is crazy, Benjamin thought. And would they be right? Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Why do I feel this way? Why can I not just be happy. Why do I have to be a burden? A burden.

I am a B U R D E N.

Stop feeling this way, he told himself. You are making it up. It is all in your head. Don’t make momma upset. Don't disappoint pappa. It is all in your head.

He arrived home. The warm smell of roasted chicken, which usually would have made him ecstatic, only reminded him of happier times. He sat down at the table next to an empty chair for the father who was always late. When he came in, he was scolded for not arriving on time. The food is cold. Benjamin stares at the food. He is silent. Everyone is silent. Until Benjamin is asked, what’s the matter with you? What’s wrong with you? He starts to whimper. Don’t be a bitch, Benjamin. Not at the table Benjamin. And at that, he begins to scream. He screams in frustration. He screams in agony. He screams and screams until his throat begins to ache. Tears stream down his freckled face. He claws at his eyes and scratches his face. He begins to cry, and cry, and cry, and cry. He cried for today, he cried for yesterday, he cried for all of the pain he endured for as long as he could remember. He cried for tomorrow. He burst out with what he was feeling. He frantically explained that he too was confused as to why he felt this way. He was hysterical; he lost control of what he was saying but listened to his mouth cry out words. His family remained seated, not having moved a muscle. And suddenly, he felt something change. A tremendous weight had been lifted off of his weak chest. A ray of sunlight snuck into the dining room, through a crack between the shades. The rain halted. His tears remained pouring down his face, but he felt as though he was no longer crying of sadness and pain, but joy and excitement. He regained a sense of passion, he had an urge to go explore, he smiled for the first time in days. His desire to get into bed subsided and was replaced by a desire to hug everyone in sight. No, that is not how it really went. That is how he imagined it would play out, but what really happened came as no surprise. His mother glanced at his father. A look of horror. Had he done something wrong? Was this the end? Did they think he was crazy? Was he crazy? He ran to his room, slammed the door, and stuffed his face into his pillow. He wondered, and he thought, and he pondered, and he imagined, a life filled with happiness. A life that he wanted to live; a life that did not feel like a chore but rather a blessing. This is what he desired. He was tired of hiding how he felt. He was tired of playing the part and putting on a smile. He was tired of trying to live for his parents. He grew more and more frustrated, having to abide by society's expectations of what a boy should be. He questioned the stigmas surrounding these expectations. He was frustrated with keeping his emotions to himself. How could someone go on this way, he asked himself. Our feelings are meant to be shared; our emotions are meant to be expressed. As the year went on, Benjamin found mechanisms to forget about what seemed like a terminal case of sadness and tiredness. He went out with his friends and drank till he was numb. He lifted weights till he could not walk. He worked and worked and worked. But what Benjamin never did was try to talk. He never told anyone how he felt. How this made him feel. Why he felt the way he did. Did he even know why he felt this way? He sought company in music that made him feel less alone. But overtime, Benjamin came to terms with the reality that these mechanisms were for coping but not growing; overlooking but not overcoming. He began to write. He would write paragraphs upon paragraphs, just to delete them. This was the foot in the closing door; the morsel of light in a dark room. What had seemed to be a lifetime full of agony and suppressed, confused thoughts, slowly became a lifetime full of self discovery. He found unconventional ways to express himself; he seeked the help he needed. Yet he could only seek this help, and be helped, when he stopped caring about how others viewed him. Why choose – or rather endure – a life of pain, self resentment, and suppression, when you can overlook society’s stigmas around men expressing their emotions, and live a life full of joy. Why suffocate yourself with and dilute your own feelings, when you can rely on the people around you to listen to you, to hear you, to be there for you. No one said it is easy. No one said this is just a simple solution. It is rather a key to victory in one of many battles in a war. Just weeks before falling into this stage of sadness and resentment, Benjamin thought caring about mental health was silly. It is something for sensitive people. It is for people who like talking about their emotions. It is about people who think other people actually give a shit about how they feel. But this came as a result of never talking about how he really felt. It came from seeing people be labeled as a “bitch” or a “girl” for crying. It came from never hearing his father say how he felt. It came from growing up in a family where the boys and men don’t discuss how they feel and the girls and women do so in abundance. The polarity and the contrast of these two profiles, expectations, and stereotypes, cultivated an obligation to wear a smile and suppress inner sentiments at all costs, by any means necessary.

Fuck that, Benjamin said. To hell with the expectations. I am as much a person as you are, he thought. I have every right to express myself, he thought. I shouldn’t have to abide by the stereotypes of what a man should be, at the expense of his well being, he thought. He was not crazy. He was not alone. He was loved. The way to overcome this hardship that he experienced was to begin to reconcile with, observe, and believe these things. That he is not crazy. He is not alone. And he is, more than anything, loved.

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