There is a picture of Lemuel Gulliver hanging on the wall behind the check-out counter at my local library branch. (From Jonathan Swift’s never-out-of-print classic, Gulliver’s Travels). It’s the scene where he wakes up on the beach and finds that the Lilliputians have tied him to the ground. Although the threads are fine, there are so many of them staked down that he can only free one arm. They’ve even tied his hair. He’s so ensnared that he can’t even roll over to pee. The Lilliputians shoot him with arrows, threaten him with spears, drug his wine, and finally replace his ropes with chains. None of this was meant as an allegory about the mundane details of life, but...
These are the ropes that tie us down:
Health problems (one rope each)
Poor eating habits (one rope each)
Toxic relationships (one rope each)
This is why habit change can be so discouraging. It can take a lot of effort to snap a thread. But after all that work, all the other threads are still in place. Not sure about you, but I have definitely felt so stressed and overworked that I couldn’t even find time for a pee break! I have also felt that gloomy sense of 100 arrows pointed my way if I tried to make a break for it. Dire circumstances indeed, especially when we consider that “falling back to sleep” might lead to those cords being replaced with chains. Habits do chain us and they do start at a scarcely perceptible gauge. They start when we aren’t paying attention.
Gulliver falls asleep after drinking a half-pint of brandy. Clearly, he has no idea that he will be captured with all these binding cords. It’s just that he relaxes his guard and stops paying attention, even though he’s in a vulnerable place. This is perfectly understandable, considering that he is the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Trauma and exhaustion, don’t you know. Nobody can blame him for what happens to him. He didn’t ask for it. Trouble often leads to more trouble in this manner, though. It’s the same way for us non-fictional, ordinary humans. We turn to mediocre or ineffective coping strategies when times are hard, and they often lead to further problems.
What do we do when nothing is really going very well? When we’re burned out and exhausted and we feel unsupported? When we’re broke and having health issues? When we’re out of shape and disorganized, yet we also need to find a better job? Where do we even start? Which thread do we try to snap first?
The first key is to recognize that all these threads are the same: obstacles that hold us back and prevent us from moving forward. It doesn’t really matter which one we break first, because they’re all going to have to go. Gulliver gets his left hand free first, though it happens more or less by accident. If his right hand had been loose instead, it might have gone differently. That translates to focusing on whichever negative force will make it easiest to work on the others.
In my opinion, the first cord to break is the sense of futility and resignation. Learned helplessness teaches us to keep trudging along, tolerating the intolerable. We don’t know our own strength. We don’t always realize that all we have to do is to sit up quickly, put the smackdown on the mean little spear-carrying Lilliputians, and start walking. We are much bigger than our problems – even when there are 40 of them and only one of us.
Next in my opinion are disorganization and sleep deprivation. Those become simple when we have a clear sense of purpose and when we let go of the desire to distract ourselves late at night. We keep trying to buy ourselves a bit of cloud real estate where we can escape the world. Daydream time for real dreamtime. The truth is that it’s impossible to enjoy anything when we are chronically short on sleep, and we don’t realize how true this is until we start getting enough. Getting enough sleep improves focus and willpower, gives us more physical energy, helps fight chronic pain, and helps eliminate food cravings. Plus it’s free! We start to feel as though the other things holding us back maybe aren’t quite as serious as we first thought.
When Gulliver gets free, he eventually goes on to travel the world, come home again, and start hanging out with his horse a lot. Not such a bad ending. Many of us would do the same, once it crosses our minds that it’s possible.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.