Papers are strewn all over the table. One lone lamp glows softly. Each member of the household has retired for the evening, except for one. I sit at the kitchen table stressing while frantically completing as much work as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. It’s near the end of the school year, and I’m almost done with my junior year of high school. This year had been by far the hardest year of high school yet because of a full class schedule, technical school at a local college, and hours of homework each night. At this point in the year, I am really feeling the pressure from finals, end-of-the-year projects, and all the excitement of the beginning of the summer.
Burning the midnight oil, I was doing everything I could to not completely lose my mind when I thought about everything I had yet to do before the end of the year. For the past two hours, I had been working on precalculus homework, and it seemed like there was no end in sight. I have always been a perfectionist, especially when it came to something as definite as math, so I wanted to complete every problem and obtain the correct answers. This particular evening was not much different from many others in the previous weeks.
Around 12 o’clock, my mom made her way from her bedroom to the kitchen to provide some support for her frantic daughter. Seeing me in this condition was not an entirely uncommon experience for my mother. Her comfort usually helped me immensely and calmed me down quickly. Having her to talk things through with was one of the things that got me through those stressful weeks. However, on this particular evening, her comforting words and encouragement did not match the level of stress I was experiencing. I was more overwhelmed than I had ever been. I thought there was no way I would be able to make it through the rest of the week.
As tears streamed down my face, my mother held me tight, stroked my hair, and encouraged me to take a breath and calm down. It did not take long for her to realize that I was in no condition to think rationally, and she knew something had to be done. She left me to stress and panic at the kitchen table for just a little longer as she went to fetch my dad.
My dad walked into the kitchen, wiping sleep off his face to help his panicked, stressed and overwhelmed daughter. After he asked me what the problem was, I spilled out an incoherent explanation of why I was in this condition. He patiently listened while my mother sat nearby to provide more support. After I babbled nonsense for five minutes, telling him the long list of things I still had to do and how I thought I would never be able to finish it all, he gave me some of the best advice I have ever received. He asked one of the strangest, most helpful questions I have ever heard in my life.
“How do you eat an elephant?”
I was so confused and taken aback by what he had said that I thought he was just being silly, hoping to make me laugh and get my mind off of the mess. He could see the confusion on my face and said, “It’s simple. One bite at a time.”
With those seven words, my dad reminded me that not everything can be done at once. In order to complete something, it can only be done one step at a time. I had focused so much on the work as a whole rather than on each individual item that had to be completed. I had combined all of the things on my to-do list into one big category in my mind—“schoolwork.” What I should have done was break up each assignment and project into individual items on the to-do list. The completion of one item on the list was another thing that I could cross off the list. Rather than being overwhelmed with one huge project, breaking it up into smaller pieces helped me to manage it much better. Also, crossing something off the to-do list gave me more motivation to keep working so that I could cross off another.
With seven small words, my dad showed me that I was allowing myself to get overwhelmed. All I had to do was break it down into several tasks rather than looking at it as a whole. He encouraged me to take the first bite and ask God for His help in completing all the tasks. For too long, I had spent all of my time being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what I had to accomplish rather than relying on God to help me get each task done. My dad told me to cast all my burdens on God rather than worrying myself sick about it.
This advice is something that has stuck in my head ever since I first heard him say it. Now, whenever I’m stressed out and have a long to-do list, I remember when my dad told me how to eat an elephant.
One bite at a time.