During the coronavirus pandemic, we’re staying home to save lives. Hard as this is, what comes next is even more daunting—rebuilding society and restarting the economy. It seems impossible. As I take this time to clear out the blackberries that threaten to take over the lower part of our property, I’m learning a lot about tackling impossible tasks. Here are a few things I’ve discovered.
So much of what makes a thing impossible is that we give up before we begin. And standing in front of an 8-foot-tall wall of thorny blackberry vines, I can understand why. It’s darn intimidating! But when I clip the vine right in front of me, I see another one that wouldn’t be too hard to reach. Then another. And another. Pretty soon I’ve cleared three feet of blackberry canes. By that time, it looks so good I just want to keep going.
So just begin. What is one small thing you can do today that will lift someone’s spirits? Maybe it’s smiling with your eyes over the top of your face mask. General McRaven recommends making your bed every morning. Whatever it is, do one thing today. And then you’ll see more things you can do.
Look for Leverage
As I stand there in front of this enormous blackberry patch with clippers in hand, I quail at the idea of having to snip every single vine. But here’s what I’ve discovered: If you pull the live vines out and chop them into pieces, what’s left underneath is dry and brittle. I can actually just break them with my hands and feet. Who knew? There’s actually a stomp dance for blackberries! I make much faster progress and it’s actually quite fun. How can you leverage what you’re doing and make a bigger impact on the impossible challenge you’re facing? Maybe there’s a way to reduce the work. Maybe taking one action can have an effect on several different areas at once.
Take Care of Yourself
Blackberries have really wicked thorns. They go through my clothes, my gloves and the soles of my shoes. I even had one go right through my thumbnail. You’ve got to wear protective clothing for this job—it’s definitely not a shorts and tshirt activity. The same is true for any sticky challenge. Do what you need to do for yourself to keep going, because…
This is Not a Sprint
Impossible challenges—by definition—defy a quick fix. This is not a dash to the finish line. We’re in this for the long haul. And it will be hard. And seemingly endless. So settle in. Make your very best contribution today. Rest. Then come back again tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.
This blackberry patch has been growing for more than 30 years. I won’t conquer it in a day. The problems we are tackling in this world have been piling up for decades, probably centuries. They won’t be solved in a month. Yes, we’re in for a long, hard climb. But we’re in this together.
Get to the Roots
Even if I clear the entire half acre of blackberries and cut down every single vine, they’ll just come back more ferocious than ever if I don’t dig out the roots. And some of those roots are huge and gnarly.
The same is true for the problems we’re facing in this world. If we just put a bandaid on it, if we just try the quick fix, these problems will come back even stronger than before. What’s at the root of the problem? Do we have beliefs about who deserves resources and who doesn’t? I’m re-reading Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books. In Tehanu, she describes a belief held by some that people are what happens to them. If you’re rich, then you deserve good fortune. If you’re poor and oppressed, you’ve done something to deserve to be poor and oppressed. Is that why we’ve created a society where some people have a roof over their head and others don’t? What’s at the root of the problem?
I’ve been working along the perimeter of the blackberry patch, clearing a three-foot swath along the boundary of our property. The other day, my neighbor came out with her own clippers and started working on the blackberries from her side of the fence. Together we made tremendous progress. It was so great to be able to work together, while social distancing. We worked, we talked, we cleared a good chunk of the fence. Now the entire landscape looks so different!
When you settle in and do the work, allies show up. Sometimes in the most surprising ways. They bring different perspectives, different skills, different ways of doing things. Learn from them. Share what you know. Together you can go much further and faster than either of you can alone.
Tackling Impossible Tasks Will Become Our New Normal
The road before us does indeed look daunting. We’re being called to solve problems we’ve never faced up to before. It’s a difficult road and thorny. But we’re not alone. Nor are we without resources. So just begin. Take one small step. Help a neighbor. Lend a hand. It’s all of us working together that will get us through this. I’m here, chipping away. And I know you are too.
In case you’re curious… In the photo above, the brown foreground used to be an impenetrable mass of blackberry brambles. This is what an impossible task looks like once you’ve begun.