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Lighten your load

marketplace for the mind

Let’s face it, attending Duke University can be stressful, lonely, and a whole lot of gloomy adjectives personified by the frigid week we’ve been having (ignore my column’s title in this case: please bundle up). 

Likely, some of us are feeling the pressures of Duke right now, and some of us are being bucked by it. Hang in there and stop reading The Chronicle. 

But for most of us, the social, personal, and academic fatigues of Duke are a bit more chronic. They twist and knot themselves into our psyches, our conversations, and most egregiously, our thoracic spines. 

That’s right, we are going through a spinal health crisis, and I think it has something to do with the oversized, Santa-approved sacks we haul around (better known as backpacks). 

A sturdy backpack, defined by me as a receptacle with two straps and zero remorse, is essential for any Duke student who wants to freely use their hands. 

There are a few of us who do get by slinging handbags and computer sleeves, but for the majority of students, our nomadic lifestyles require us to employ the services of High Sierra, North Face, and Jansport to carry our stuff. 

And if you’re anything like me, we treat our backpacks as if they are the suitcases our parents pack for vacations. They’re overweight and filled with things we don’t need. 

The only time mine has been empty was when I first bought it from Staples back in August. Since then, it’s been abused by my indecision, reaching a critical mass of things even Atlas would get tired of carrying. But for the past few months, I convinced myself I could accomplish the Herculean task of lugging the equivalent of a small child around with me. As my frequent back pain can attest, this was not a good idea. 

I realized my backpack was too heavy when I offered my English professor, whose Olympic stamina is routinely displayed by his impressive lectures, to lift my bag. If there was anyone who could determine if my bag was too heavy, it was Professor Strandberg. 

“Holy —!” He remarked, dropping my backpack to the ground with a loud thud. There was my answer. 

That was the day I stopped carrying The Portable Faulkner with me all the time. Turns out, the book isn’t very portable. 

Nor was the calculator I kept in the side-pocket of my bag, or the (emergency) Moleskin I stashed in the back, or the book I stole from West Union, or the obscene amount of highlighters, pens, and textbooks I hoarded in preparation for the academic apocalypse that never arrived. 

Across college campuses, overloaded backpacks are a real health concern. Around 85 percent of American university students in 2008 reported backpack-related pain and discomfort. A backpack that is too heavy causes imbalance and muscle strain, distorting the natural curvature of the spine. Combine this with the time we spend slouched over desks and computer screens and and a lot of us will end up with 60-year-old problems in 18-year-old bodies. 

Don’t let that be you. Take caution in what you carry. Experts recommend that students carry no more than 10 percent of their weight in a backpack. It’s good, practical advice, and if you follow it, you just might make it to the end of the semester. 

But as we all obediently empty our bags (as we should), now is an opportune time to consider the other weights of our lives. Ten percent is also the subject of the advice President Price gives to Duke students. He recommends that every Duke student cut back on 10 percent of whatever they’re doing, whether it’s a club, a commitment, or the bustle of Duke culture that leaves us wondering if we should be doing more. 

Our time at Duke, like an unfilled backpack, is ripe with possibility. There are so many things to do, people to meet, and socials and talks and shows to attend that it seems the only way to do everything is to overwhelm ourselves. But soon we find ourselves cramming things into pockets of time even if they don’t fit or belong. We overload, adding that extra class or that extra club and we overthink.

Like a good backpack, however, our time at Duke can carry a lot of things, but it can’t make room for everything. But it’s the limitation of experience that makes a Duke education truly valuable. So lighten your load. Muster the introspection to do less and instead commit to the organizations, issues, and people that really matter in your life. 

And please, give your back a break. 

Michael Cao is a Trinity first-year. His column, marketplace for the mind, runs on alternate Fridays.


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