What do you do when you are between a rock and a hard place? Homer dedicated a whole section of the Odyssey to the dilemma. In order to return to their home, Ulysses had to pass through the narrow Strait of Messina with his crew. On one side, they faced a rock with a man-eating monster. On the other side of the strait, a deadly whirlpool promised a fatal end to the entire crew. With not enough room to sail safely between, Ulysses had to choose between a rock and a hard place.
In epic tales, a narrow strait makes for a good adventure and we read with enthusiasm to see how it all works out. When the rock and the hard place show up in our own lives, however, we may have a different response.
When we are in our own narrow strait, we cannot see a good option. Others around us may be full of clarity, believing that the answer is easy and sometimes even offering to tell us exactly what we should do. Sometimes, in our desperation, we take the bait—or even go looking for it. “Just tell me what I’m supposed to do here!” we plead. aWe want the friend, therapist, coach, or consultant to make the decision for us. Wise, seasoned professionals and friends will not comply. Those who know how this works will gently hand the decision, much to our dismay, right back over to us to figure out. They know that if they give us an answer, we are likely to respond with all the reasons their suggestion will not work. They recognize that the responsibility involved in making life decisions belongs only with the person who will ultimately be living that life.
Yet, from our place in the boat, staring at a rock and a hard place, we literally cannot see how to get through. The discomfort of this can be maddening. We want to paddle our hearts out, taking some kind of action, just to get to a better place. Please, we think, do not make me stare at these non-option options any longer.
That is when the real work begins. When we feel so stuck that we have no choice but to stare intently at ‘what is,’ and when we feel like the pain of inaction will ultimately break us, we begin to shift. We begin to reach out in a different way, not to ask others to fix the situation for us, but to discover what exactly we need to cultivate in ourselves to navigate the strait.
Ultimately, Ulysses chooses to sail closer to the rock with the monster. While the monster claims six lives, Ulysses avoids what would have been a tragic end for the entire crew had they sailed closer to the whirlpool. In our own situations, we realize, like Ulysses, that some level of loss is inevitable in forward movement. Much of the fear we face stems from believing we may make the wrong choice. What if, we wonder, when I look back from the other side of the strait, the outcome is unacceptable? What if the loss is too great? Then what will I do? This fear can leave us paralyzed, choosing to nothing instead of something.
The key to moving past this is to reach out—not for advice, but for help cultivating the internal strength, confidence, and faith we need to trust ourselves to move forward. In the midst of staring at our rock and hard place, we are apt to forget our strength. We focus instead on all the inadequacies that we perceive led us to this strait in the first place. From this place, we need to connect with someone who has a broader perspective—who can see us as strong and capable, and who knows the stories of many others who have emerged successfully from similar straits.
While loss is inevitable when choosing between a rock and hard place, growth is inevitable as well. When we reach our ‘home’ on the other side, we will have opportunities to share with others how we made the choices we did. We will be able to talk with our children about what is means to make hard choices, and we can share with them the experiences and thoughts we had in making the choices we did.
Our goal is the same as Ulysses’ goal: to make it home—to arrive at the place we are meant to be while sustaining the fewest possible losses and achieving the greatest possible outcome. To reach our goal, we must first reach out to at least one other person who will help us remember what ‘home’ looks like, and will assist us in discovering that we are smart enough, wise enough, and brave enough to make the hard choices involved in going forward. Next, we must be willing to choose action over inaction. Finally, we must choose and commit to going forward, with no guarantees that it will work out. Why? We choose because we want to go home, to the place we are meant to be, and taking action—even small paddle strokes—is the only way we can get there.