Desmond Tutu is a South African cleric and theologian who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in resolving and ending apartheid. He once wisely said that “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” What he meant is that everything in life that seems daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible can be accomplished gradually by taking on just a little at a time.
This is also referred to as 'partializing' and is one of my favorite coping strategies. I remember seeing a patient at the Cancer Center several years ago. She was overwhelmed and when I asked her to be more specific, she said, “Well, my bathroom is filthy and I just can’t even think about tackling it.” So we made a plan: when she went home, she was going to “Ajax the sink” as I used to say. (Or use Comet or whatever cleaning material was preferred.) That’s all she needed to do was Ajax the sink. She didn’t have to take on the whole bathroom. The next time I saw her, she was upbeat and said, “Wow, that really worked! I did it! And the next day my goal was the shower and now I have a pretty clean bathroom after taking it on a bit at a time.” She felt a sense of accomplishment and success and understood that when things seem daunting, overwhelming and even impossible, they become possible one step at a time. Sometimes I view my closet that way: too much to handle. So I start with a corner or a top shelf. That’s all. And I see results.
Facing a Monday – Friday five-week radiation therapy protocol or a six-month chemotherapy regime every 3 ½ weeks might feel like it will never end. But it will. When you look at the whole elephant, it’s just too much. But taking it one bite at a time, one week at a time, one day at a time, one step at a time, can make it manageable.
As a child I remember reading the book, The Little Engine That Could, a story that captured my heart as the tiny blue engine chugged up the hill while repeating the mantra “I think I can, I think I can,” as it faced what seemed an impossible task. After bravely making it to the top and continuing on down the grade, it congratulated itself by saying “I thought I could, I thought I could.”
Taking the first step may seem impossible: getting out of bed, getting off the couch, doing the dishes, walking around the block, finishing treatment, or writing that first chapter of a book. Believing that you can is half the battle and the elephant metaphor reminds us to take one bite at a time. This quote from St. Francis of Assisi sums up how to eat an elephant: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
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SUE'S GIFT BLOG
Sherry Martin is the Patient Services Director for Sue's Gift, a licensed clinical social worker with over thirty years of experience in the field of oncology social work, and author of the book, Beginning Again: Tools for the Journey through Grief: A Step-by-Step Guide for Facilitators of a Grief Support Group. Sherry lives with her husband in Woodland Park, Colorado.
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