When You Know Something Is Going To Be Hard, Showing Up Can Be The Hardest Part.
When I learned about ancient mythology in school, I didn’t closely identify with a lot of the folks that filled the stories. I certainly didn’t have fellows dropping at my feet like Aphrodite. The vast power of Zeus, combined with his lustiness and (at times) questionable decision-making was kind of confusing. The wisdom of Athena left me feeling small. Pandora’s inability to control herself and keep that stupid box shut served only to irritate me.
But even as a kid, I had a deep pity for Sisyphus. Do you know his story? He was a wily, successful king who did a lot of bad stuff on his way to the top. He killed, he robbed, he told other people’s secrets. He even managed to tick off the “big guy,” Zeus. Once he finally landed in the Underworld, the gods thought long and hard about how to punish him for his deceitful life and they came up with a doozy. Sisyphus was doomed to an eternity of pushing a huge stone up a steep hill. Each time he neared the top of the hill, the boulder would roll back down, forcing him to begin again.
All that hard work with no chance of completion or any recognition for your effort would really stink, right?
Ask any mom the definition of a “Sisyphean task” and I suspect she won’t pause before giving you a one word response. “Laundry.” It’s not much more fun than pushing a gigantic rock uphill. Even more importantly, it’s never done. No sooner do you finish folding the last sock from your last load of the day, than someone in your house will change clothes. Without even a satisfying moment to say “I’m done,” you’re back to it again.
There is another fellow from mythology whose name is attached to some of the tasks that fill our days – Hercules. He was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Zeus’ wife, Hera, in a fit of jealousy, drove Hercules into a mad frenzy and he killed his wife and children. To atone for these murders, he was given 12 tasks to complete. Let’s just say that they were all really, really hard to do, but with his super-human strength, Hercules was able to pull them off. Not only did he get the satisfaction of completing his tasks, but he became famous for making the world a safer place for humankind.
While it’s rare that we have to kill monsters, we still face “Herculean tasks.” These are the things that require tremendous effort of us – raking the yard, changing over your kids’ closets for a new season, painting the bedroom. I’ve even heard that showing up for a weekly yoga class can feel Herculean! These are the things we know are going to big before we even begin. Because of this, getting ourselves to start is often the most “Herculean” part of the job. Once we get going, the work carries us along. Once we finish, we’re left pleased with our results and proud of our hard work.
Showing up and doing the work is what it’s all about. “Herculean tasks” are great life lessons for us. While true of all of the above examples, let’s talk about how the work involved in showing up to a yoga class can feel Herculean. We know it’s good for us. We know we’ll feel good after class. But we know it’s going to be hard. Really, really hard. Additionally, we know we will spend those 60 or 90 minutes not doing a hundred other things. How do we get ourselves there? There are lots of tricks for lots of people. What works for me is to schedule yoga like I would schedule an important meeting. By doing this, yoga becomes as non-negotiable a part of my day as an appointment when someone else is counting on me to show up. Once I’ve showed up, the hardest part is over. The work of yoga carries me along. Once I finish, I feel great – re-centered, re-charged, and re-invigorated.
And that’s the curious thing about Herculean tasks. While they require a lot of us, they leave us fulfilled. We may realize one day that we actually seek out Herculean tasks. We may realize that some of the most rewarding moments of our lives are when we’ve completed these tasks. The same cannot be said of Sisyphean tasks. These can really drain us. They feel (and, often, they are) endless. Even when they do end, they’re not so rewarding. Afterwards, we feel emptied, a little hollow, not at all fulfilled.
Because we have a little more control over the tasks that fill our days than Sisyphus and Hercules did in their stories, it is important that we develop the ability to tell a Sisyphean from a Herculean task. While it will not be possible to avoid all of our Sisyphean tasks, we can skip some (organizing the junk drawer) and hire out some (washing the dog). Simply knowing that we’re only left with a few (pesky laundry!), will make them feel less draining and more manageable.
Just think! Once we have this figured out, we’ll have lots of extra energy to pour into our next Herculean project.
Bring it on!
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