In The Hobbit, there is a scene where Bilbo and the Dwarves are wandering around Mirkwood forest. They have lost the path and are wandering without purpose. They have run out of food and are starving and can’t make themselves eat the animals that they catch, for they seem inedible. They have run out of water. The air in the forest feels stuffy and every breath feels like a chore, and it never seems to get any lighter deep under the canopy. They are exhausted but sleep fitfully, awoken, unrefreshed, by strange eyes that surround them. (The exception is the largest dwarf, Bombur, who sleeps all the time, forcing them to carry his enormous weight with them.)
And they have a suspicion that they are being stalked through the woods by something just always out of sight…
At this point, the dwarves force Bilbo to climb a tree to get the layout, to judge how far they are from the edge of the forest – or even which direction to go. Bilbo ascends through cobwebs and tiny spiders and eventually raises his head above the treetops where he is surrounded by huge black butterflies but at least he can take a breath of fresh air.
He looks all around but the forest seems to extend forever in every direction. Eventually he descends again and reports back to the dwarves who become even too despondent to care and pick a direction at random, certain that it is the wrong direction but feeling that they must do something.
Actually, the narrator says, they were not far off the edge of the forest; and if Bilbo had the sense to see it, the tree he had climbed, though it was tall in itself, was standing near the bottom of a wide valley, so that from its top the trees seemed to swell up all around like the edges of a great bowl, and he could not expect to see how far the forest lasted.
In other words, Bilbo and the dwarves were in a great depression and could not see that the way out lay nearby, just beyond a ridge hidden by the forest. When the narrator implies that Bilbo didn’t have the sense, I take that not to mean that Bilbo lacked commons sense, but that Bilbo’s senses were dulled by the stress of their situation and his brain could not process what his eyes were seeing, any more than the eyes of someone born blind can immediately process shapes after a surgery to repair their sight. We only know that the edge is near because the narrator, who is outside of Bilbo’s situation, can see clearly and tells us.
This is what it feels like to be at the end of your rope. It feels like the painful slog you are going through will continue forever and you either wander, aimlessly, like Bilbo and the dwarves, or curl up like poor old Bombur and take refuge in a sleep that leaves you unrefreshed. Most of the time, you stumble around in the murk but, even when you make the effort to pull yourself up to gaze above the trees, it can seem like there is no way out, even if others can clearly see that there is an end in sight.
One time, when I felt this way, I was overwhelmed at work. My boss had promoted me – she called it a promotion, but I was really moving laterally – in deed, but she couldn’t get the VP of HR to sign off on the promotion (ah, politics!), so I still had my old job title and was doing both my old job and the new job. My team was raw and unformed, badly hired by the previous manager, new to their roles, untrained, and had been taught to respond, not to take initiative. The amount of work was ridiculously high and I couldn’t get them to apply more streamlined processes because they were clinging desperately to what little they knew. When any one of them called in sick, we immediately fell behind and had to work twice as hard to catch up, and my greatest fear was that I’d lose one of them before I could find a replacement.
I was physically out of shape, mentally exhausted, emotionally discouraged. I had been late every day to work and worked late every night. My husband and I were fighting. I loved the company and people I served, but the BS with HR made me feel so discouraged that I wanted to quit my job and go do something else but didn’t know what, and didn’t know how to get started, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I had taken vacation. Finally, I told my boss I was taking a day off and she forced me to agree not to check email (this was before texting and long before Slack).
On my day off, I got a massage and a haircut, and I made an appointment with a personal shopper – something I had not done before and have not done since. Still casting about for the first step on the path out of my personal Mirkwood, I thought that the shopper could help me buy an interview suit, and that would get me started on my new journey.
The personal shopper was a mistake. I am sure there must be good personal shoppers out there, but she was not one of them. The suits she brought me were completely wrong – I remember one designer suit was super-thick polyester with the seams on the outside, in a muddy grey – and she wasn’t able to get the size right. Size was a problem because I was overweight, which was one of the reasons that I sought professional shopping assistance – but she was a perfect size 4 and didn’t understand fitting a larger woman’s body. She kept saying that their tailors could fix things that even I knew they couldn’t fix.
As I sat in that beautiful, light-filled luxurious fitting room – one of the benefits of working with a personal shopper – wondering why I was wasting my time like this, my cell phone rang. It was one of my hapless employees.
“I hope I’m not bothering you,” she chirped. “I wanted to tell you that I gave two weeks notice to your boss this morning.” I dropped into a chair, speechless. “She told me not to call and tell you because you needed a day off and there was nothing you could do about it today. But I thought you should know.”
I thanked the little bitch and got dressed. When the personal shopper returned with another armful of unwearables, I told her I had a personal emergency and had to leave, went to a fancy restaurant nearby and ordered a salad and a martini. Eventually, I got on a ferry, crossed the Hudson, and had dinner with a good friend. Somehow the worst case scenario of losing the least productive member of my team gave me new energy and freed me up to look forward.
Eventually, I found my way out of the forest: HR grudgingly agreed to the promotion and they hired a great guy to run my old department. I recruited an awesome team who went on to do impressive work. I took on and fought battles with giant spiders, outsmarted wood elves, found hidden keyholes, and even conquered a dragon.
The trick is to connect with a narrator who can help you see that the forest ends there, just over that ridge. To find someone you trust to say, that way, and then take one step and then another in that direction – even if it seems you aren’t making progress – until you reach the edge of the forest and can breathe again.
Or, like Bilbo, you can find purpose in rescuing your friends from huge carnivorous spiders.
Option 1 seems more appealing to me.
I don’t like spiders.