12.4.17

For awhile several years ago I was really interested in solar-powered electricity, and one of the things you hear a lot about in that realm is phantom load. A phantom load is anything that’s quietly drawing electricity even when it’s not really doing anything noticeable like shedding light or heating something up. Stovetop clocks, power strip lights, wireless routers are examples. These little loads don’t use much power, but when you can only draw power from the small solar panel array on your roof (as opposed to from the electrical grid), you keep more careful track of what you’re using.

I don’t have solar power at my house but from time to time I still think about phantom loads. The other night I was walking through the dark upstairs hall and the little light on a hard-wired smoke detector caught my eye. “Phantom load,” I said out loud to the detector, and into my memory popped a line I once heard about being kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. (The original language, from the Scottish preacher Ian Maclaren, seems to have been “be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”) That in turn reminded me of something the writer Anne Lamott has said about how you shouldn’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. We don’t know what goes on for other people, nor they for us.

All such wisdom seems especially apt now that we all have such ready access to curated feeds of others’ lives (in other words, their outsides). Meanwhile, everyone’s carrying their own phantom loads – burdens that are invisible to the naked or careless eye, sapping energy all the live long day. And there’s a way in which the smaller ones can take a greater overall toll thanks to their invisibility. When I think of my time as a classroom teacher, I know that when I’d hear that a student had lost a family member or was dealing with a severe illness, I’d take particular care with the child. But if one of my students was struggling with something less worthy of mention, like a chronically contentious relationship with a sibling, or stomach pain from an undiagnosed food allergy, a proclivity for nightmares (or all three), I usually wouldn’t hear about it and the child’s internal battle would carry on without acknowledgment or support.

It’s hard to imagine we could get much done if we tried to suss out every load carried by every person in every circumstance, never mind try to address them all. But if there were some way we could even just acknowledge that the loads are there, especially for young children who often feel as though they are the only ones struggling (and thus get the idea that something must be wrong with or defective about them), I think that could be worth a lot.