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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien inspired me to certain reflections. First, I thought about burdens people carry in their life. The way people live is, in fact, many-sided. Every person combines three persons: the one whom he or she believes to be; the one whom other people think he or she is; and the one whom he or she is. Nevertheless, most people prefer to live in an outward, surface way. They pretend that they have everything under their control, that everything is ok. Behind this facade, something different is hidden. People try to make a good impression on other people. To do this, they all wear masks. Generally, these masks are supposed to demonstrate that the ones who wear them are strong, having no problems, are successful, and able to achieve anything they want. That was exactly the mask the soldiers wore in this story:

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Awkwardly, the men would reassemble themselves, first in private, then in groups, becoming soldiers again. They would repair the leaks in their eyes. They would check for casualties, call in dust-offs, light cigarettes, try to smile, clear their throats and spit and begin cleaning their weapons. […] Some carried themselves with a sort of wistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good humor or macho zeal. They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it. They found jokes to tell.

Behind the scenes, the soldiers like the majority of people carried different kinds of burdens. For some of them, it was shameful memories; some of them had twinges of conscience, the others carried fear. It may seem awkward, but for some people, the burden is their own life. We usually do not think over such things, but such people live near us and that is the way their world exists. Many people in society have never taken part in warfare. Nevertheless, they consider their life to be a war, and they carry the burden of being alive.

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The old people are the first example. Due to the high quality of life and medicine in Hong Kong, people have all the conditions to enjoy their lives. China and Japan are famous for their long-livers. The interesting fact is that many people consider it to be the result of drinking green tea. Still, some people do not want to live longer than others. The life of people who retire is different. By that time, they usually have adult children, and they have already grandchildren. However, their children care about their own life, about getting a good job, raising their children. They do not have time to spend with their parents. Meanwhile, old people who stop working become deprived of simple human communication. Of course, there are always some friends whom they can talk to, but if the person lives a long life, he or she often outlives his or her friends. In one’s old age, the situation worsens by the number of diseases. These are diseases that make old people think of their life as a burden. It is a burden for their children and relatives in the first place. Old people feel guilty about this – they do not want to complicate somebody’s life. Also, they think it is unfair. It is difficult to find justice in others when they perceive you as dead while you are still alive. This kind of feeling is shown in the short story of Tim O’Brien:

Afterward, when the firing ended, they would blink and peek up. They would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hiding it. They would force themselves to stand. As if in slow motion, frame by frame, the world would take on the old logic-absolute silence, then the wind, then sunlight, then voices. It was the burden of being alive.

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The other people for whom it is a burden to be alive are those diagnosed with AIDS. They consider their life as a burden because they know that they will die sooner or later. They lose colors of life and stop seeing a sense in it. One friend of mine works in an AIDS rehab center. He helps such people to go through this and to move on. He had been telling me many stories about totally frustrated people whom he is dealing with. Some of them even get ready to commit suicide; they believe their death is just a matter of time. And the worst is that they stop dreaming.

It is the second thing I reflected on – the place of dreams in our life. We can see Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in this short story. He is just a young boy who fell in love with a girl named Martha. Despite the war, he lives in his imaginary world: in his memories and fantasies of his beloved.

Tim O’Brien describes it in several paragraphs: “His mind wandered. He had difficulty keeping his attention on the war. On occasion, he would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing.” Another thrilling example is:

Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore. They were pressed together, and the pebble in his mouth was her tongue. He was smiling. Vaguely, he was aware of how quiet the day was; the sullen paddies, yet he could not bring himself to worry about matters of security. He was beyond that. He was just a kid at war, in love.

In wartime, these thoughts rescued him from reality inducing him to move on and dream about an airplane that would take him to Martha one day. No wonder, the boy accepted such thoughts – he was young and came to the war just to avoid the blush of dishonor. His life just began, and he felt that he left many things unfinished at home. He often thought about the things he should have done but he had not. It was a kind of silent reproach for him. He regretted it a lot: “Right then, he thought, he should’ve done something brave. He should’ve carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long. He should’ve risked it. Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should’ve done.”

He paid a high price for this kind of thought. He lost one of his soldiers, and he blamed himself for that. He believed that the death was caused by his infatuation with the girl and carelessness. He could not forgive himself for that; therefore, he decided to burn all her letters and photographs. Finally, he quitted even to think of her justifying his actions that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead. Probably, in wartime, imagination was a killer, but in real life, dreams help people to live. I know it from my own experience and the experience of other people. If we take a look at the lives of famous people, we will see that all of them reached their dream, because they continued to dream. Even in bad times, this dream led them forward.

An interesting moment is mentioned in this story concerning the soldiers’ dreams:

They dreamed of freedom birds. At night, on guard, staring into the dark, they were carried away by jumbo jets. They felt the rush of takeoff. […] They were flying. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear. […] They were light and free-it was all lightness, bright and fast and buoyant, light as light, a helium buzz in the brain, a giddy bubbling in the lungs as they were taken up over the Clouds and the war, beyond duty, beyond gravity and mortification anti-global entanglements – Sin loi! […] It was flight, a kind of fleeing, a kind of falling, falling higher and higher, spinning off the edge of the earth and beyond the sun and through the vast, silent vacuum where there were no burdens and where everything weighed exactly nothing. Gone! they screamed, I’m sorry but I’m gone! And so at night, not quite dreaming, they gave themselves over to lightness, they were carried, they were purely borne.


To my mind, people need dreams so that they won’t give up or treat their lives as a burden. That is why the character I liked most in this story was a soldier named Kiowa. He was the only character who did not feel guilty for being alive. Instead, he was pleased with it. He liked the smell of the New Testament and enjoyed listening to the sounds of the night. He could enjoy even his fatigue. So, he carried his experience with pleasure no matter what. And he also dreamt of freedom birds.

He s a kind of example to me. Dreams help me in my life, they inspire me. The things that I carry are my family and my future. So my dream is to get a good job and make my parents proud of me. I am lucky that I can do it. Those soldiers who took part in the Vietnam War didn’t have such an opportunity. All they had were the things they carried, their memories, their hopes, and their dreams. After reading this short story I understood that people decide how to treat their life on their own. Some of them hope for the better and keep dreaming no matter what. Some of them consider their life a burden and give up. I am optimistic as to my future and hope my dreams will come true one day.

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