Like Ten Thousand Knives When All You Need Is a Spoon

spoonIt’s been a long day, and I’m almost out of spoons. I have a couple to use writing this, but I’ll need a good sleep to forge more spoons for tomorrow.

Does this sound odd to you? Let me tell you about “Spoon Theory,” my current preoccupation. Spoon Theory is a real thing—you can find it in Wikipedia, listed as a neologism (a phrase just entering popular usage). Spoon theory is the brainchild of the wonderful blogger Christine Miserandino, who has Lupus. She explained life as a Luperian (is that a word? A neologism?) by using spoons to represent the energy it takes to do things.

According to spoon theory, every task we ever do—getting up, taking a shower, driving the kids to school—costs a spoon. Most people, most of the time, have dozens of spoons. But there are times when some of us wake up with only ten, or four, or one.

If you’ve only got one spoon, you have some decisions to make. Should you shower, make breakfast, pay your bills, or focus on a crucial work project? Choose carefully. Your options are practically nil.

As someone who’s had various autoimmune diseases since my teens, I’m acutely aware of everyone’s spoon count. I raised my longsuffering children on a king-size bed, since I usually couldn’t walk, sit, or stand without pain.

So the other day, when someone with her own autoimmune issues offered to check my email for me, I said, “That’s not happening. You’re out of spoons.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she said. “That would give me spoons.”

Wait. What?

“If it were my email, it would take spoons,” she explained. “My email makes me want to join a witness protection program. But doing it for you makes me happy. See?”

And I saw! I did! Her cheeks were pink, her eyes suddenly, subtly, brighter. She had accrued a spoon! Just one, but still.

The implication of this event, while shocking, must be faced squarely:


This isn’t part of classic Spoon Theory, so far as I know. But as I cast my mind back to my own most spoonless times, I remembered occasional, inexplicable surges of energy. I’d hear a bit of wisdom, and feel my baseline vim spike up to near normalcy. Or I’d have a good cry and then feel lighter, stronger. In fact, most of my self-help advice comes from being absolutely out of spoons, and then noticing that certain thoughts and actions added to my inner silverware drawer, instead of robbing it.

Now, please don’t think I want you to buck up, ignore your depression or fibromyalgia, and clean your damn house. Dude, you might as well just fling all your spoons into a live volcano. No, no, no. I just want you to go wherever your spoons take you.

See, we don’t get to choose which effect a given activity has on us. I can’t make my email give me spoons—I’ve tried, and the effort left spoon-shaped gouges all over my soul. But sometimes when I’m low and miserable, I notice a topic, a book, or a person, and hear a tiny plink! inside. My ears perk up. My mind clears.


I believe we’re all being steered by our true selves, and our true selves’ favorite steering mechanism is spoons. When we stray off course with actions or even thoughts, nothing on earth can make us feel spoonful. When we take a single step in the right direction: Spoonage! Maybe a teeny espresso spoon appears, or maybe it’s a big old soup ladle. A spoon is a spoon. Just keep doing whatever created it.

If you long for the world to be a saner, more loving place, please be advised that you must start inside. Care for your sick, anxious, exhausted self as lovingly as you want to care for every suffering thing. And when you find something that gives you spoons, go toward it. Go right into it. Go wherever it takes you. If I’m brave enough to follow my own heart, I know I’ll have the spoons to meet you there.

15 replies
  1. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I am suffering from a Rickettsia infection from spotted tick fever 4 years ago. It runs riot around the full moon, it and just about any other bacteria or virus decide to hold a full moon party in my body. It leaves me spoon less, and rocking like a mad woman. But its the rocking like a mad woman that always seems to bring out a silver spoon, when I am at my most vulnerable, convinced this is my last breath. I used to have gazillions of spoons and gave them away freely to all and sundry, now they are locked away in a special canteen, and I check to see how many I have every day and what I want to do with them.

  2. Christine
    Christine says:

    Thank you Martha! I am honored to be included in your newsletter, or stirring your tea in some positive manner. I don't know if you know about this. But,

  3. Phoebe J. Knopf
    Phoebe J. Knopf says:

    Thank you for your wonderful compassion!
    After reading this article, I realized I only have one tiny spoon, so I decided not to do laundry
    today, walking up and down steep flights of stairs with my heavy load. Instead, thanks to you, I'll focus on my favorite forms of self-care – reading, silent contemplative prayer, walking, maybe singing.

  4. Susan Reynolds
    Susan Reynolds says:

    Dear Martha,

    I woke up dreaming about your Diana, and learned about the concept of Spoons and Christine's Challenge. What a joy to be able to give to her fund, but more importantly to follow those nudges from the other side. Three messages yesterday and then this morning whispered Martha Beck, Martha Beck. One of them was when I was writing a list of influences: Nelson Mandela, Wayne Dyer, Jesus, and when I looked at the list, I realized it was all men. Where were the women? Martha Beck. It's Martha Beck's wisdom that you want to follow. Thus the dream about Diana, and now Christine. It's about the feminine waking up, or waking up to our feminine power. Thank you for stories of strength and resiliency like Diana, like Christine, like the power coming from Maelstrom. I can't wait.

  5. Rose
    Rose says:

    I love the analogy of the spoons. Last week I was down to one and didn't realize it till now. I have needed to make a decision in my life but the fear of the "what if's" have continued to make me fearful and polarized. Thank you for helping me to realize this.

  6. Kirsten Dwight
    Kirsten Dwight says:

    Wow, thanks, this is such a good way of putting it! I can't stand around for very long without fatigue and muscle vibrations in my legs, but dancing is just fine. I can't go jogging anymore, but I can swim in cold water. I am really drained by going to the supermarket with its size and florescent lighting, but I can cook. I have had the intuition that I need to do a different kind of work, the problem being that I don't know what. For now, I try to only involve myself in the activities I am really drawn to (asking for help or modifying my approach to the unavoidable tasks) and using this process over time to get closer to finding what it is I want to do for work. So many spontaneous things have come my way since I decided this, including being invited onto a yoga teacher training course – something I never would have thought of. Thank you Martha!

  7. Marisette Edwards
    Marisette Edwards says:

    Hi, I'm so thrilled to discover that you have a blog! I wanted to share with you that you have had a profound influence on my life. In 2009 I was going through a really rough time, with the writing on the wall for me to get the axe at work like so many people after the worldwide meltdown. I read an article you wrote in Oprah's magazine, about trusting that food will be available when you're hungry, and somehow it inspired me to come up with the mantra that I still use today: "What I need will come to me when I need it." I can't tell you how many times I've used that and whatever caused me anxiety resolved itself. Your influence is certainly far-reaching!

  8. Heidi Ort
    Heidi Ort says:

    Martha, I think the reason I love you so much, is because what you say, and how you say it, resonates for me like a well-tuned Stradivarius. My worldview, my personal experiences, my approach to life….well, its like we share a brain….except you're better at marketing and branding than me, plus you went to Harvard.

    I feel waves of validation when reading so many of your posts, after which I often want to write you a note (and do so in my head) to tell you, Yes! Yes!! YES!!!!! EGGZACTLY!!!!. I usually don't actually write it, because, well, you're not Martha Beck because thousands of women *don't* identify powerfully with you. Just know, for what it's worth, you are my soul sister, my rabbi, and a member of my personal board of directors (for that part I just imagine what you would tell me if I could just call you up and get your advice).

    This piece made so much sense to me, because I often find myself with the energetic capacity and bandwidth for others, when I have no spoons left at all for me. And I just go with it.

    Thanks for being you, and for making it ok for me to be me. (Actually more than ok…..exultant!). May you be blessed with the material and spiritual resources to continue teaching and inspiring.

  9. Cheryl Swain Burbage
    Cheryl Swain Burbage says:

    I've battled clinical depression for years and the arthritis doesn't help. I have a knee replacement coming up and I don't handle pain well, so I'm going to see what I can do for other people before then, because I need to stop piling up those spoons! I have all of Martha's books and I'm so grateful that I've discovered her. I wish she was my next-door neighbor.

  10. Susan Hoefer
    Susan Hoefer says:

    I had one spoon one dark night. I learned how to bend it into exactly what I wanted. I have never been hungry since. Whatever utensil I might need to eat that which feeds my soul can be shaped. I've learned…. give a man a spoon and he will eat a lot of soup ….. give a man some awareness, and Truth, some forgiveness and compassion in his heart and he can eat whatever the hell he wants;)


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