An African bull elephant eats 660 pounds of food every single day. And he does it the same way you and I eat our food: one bite at a time. Because there’s no other way to go about it. The elephant needs that nourishment to survive, so he must do it. For him, it’s life or death. But he can’t just jam 660 pounds of vegetation into his mouth and swallow it in a single gulp. That won’t work. So he grabs a single bite of food, swings it into his mouth, chews, and swallows. And then he does it again. And again and again and again until he’s eaten his fill.
Recovering addicts, especially those who are new to the process of recovery, could learn a lot from this example. When we first enter recovery, we are (usually) highly motivated to get well, and we’d like to accomplish that right away. If we can’t find a way to be fully recovered by the end of the day today, we’d like to accomplish it by mid-day tomorrow at the latest. But that’s just not how recovery works. It took us years to sink into the depths of our addiction, and it will likely take us just as long to heal.
Even though we want to be well right freaking now, that just doesn’t happen. We don’t get well all at once. Instead, we must chip away at success. Two steps forward, one step back. So instead of seeing ourselves where we are right now – highly motivated for recovery and healing – and expecting to suddenly, magically be at our goal of sobriety and wellness, we should slow down, take a breath, and take the next right step. And then we must take the next next right step. One step after another after another until we look back and see that we’ve made some significant progress.
Basically, we must learn to recover the way an elephant eats.
This is actually true with every major goal or milestone in life. We aim for something that, in the moment, looks impossible, like running a marathon or learning to speak after a devastating stroke or becoming a doctor or staying sober and living a happy life after many years of addiction, and then we get there the only way we can: incrementally, one small step at a time.
As Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
For me, understanding the need to live my life one moment, one step, one bite at a time is the key to reaching any goal. For instance, I write (actually, I mostly ghostwrite) for a living, including more than 20 books. Every time I start a new book project, I feel overwhelmed and borderline depressed because the project just looks too big to handle. So, for sanity’s sake, I break the project down into a hundred or so bite-sized pieces. And then I start chewing, one bite at a time, like a bull elephant eating its lunch. Before I know it, I’ve completed another book.
The other thing I need to understand and accept about myself and my ability to be productive in any aspect of life is that my motivation level varies from day to day. Some days I wake up and can’t wait to get started. Other days, I’d rather not get out of bed. On my low-energy days, I’ve learned to set my bite-sized goals at a nibble. I tell myself that I’ll just write a few paragraphs so I can feel like I accomplished something. And sometimes that’s exactly what happens. But other times I find that once I’m started, I get into the zone and end up having a really productive day.
I view my recovery the same way. I see it is a marathon, not a sprint. Recovery is a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, again and again, no matter what. I find that this ‘eating like a bull elephant’ tactic works in every facet of my life – not just my writing and my recovery. These days, when I set a big goal, I realize that I can’t just hope to magically reach that goal. Instead, I need to take one right step after another until, eventually, I reach my goal.