Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #105 When You Literally Can’t Even
About this episode

This week, Martha talks about what to do at those times when you can’t. She teaches us that even when there is literally no way forward, there is still—literally—a way. Tune in for more. (Originally aired: December 4, 2022)


Martha Beck: So, I hope that you all saw the title of today’s episode, which is, When You Literally Can’t Even. This is something that I’ve heard on the interwebs and I know it’s what the kids say. You may have seen the Saturday Night Live episode where they were just playing with the fact that people say they literally cannot do things. And, literally cannot do things means you literally cannot do things. So there’s a woman who has broken both arms from the shoulder to the fingers, and she’s in these two arm casts that make her walk like a zombie. And, the people around her are saying, “I literally cannot stand that. Could you open the window?” And she says, “I literally cannot, I literally cannot open the window.” The point is, she’s the one person in the skit who literally cannot, but everybody there is saying they literally cannot.

Well, this morning I got up, I’m just usually started a little later than this. We just got a bunch of people quickly. So, this morning I awoke, yes I did. And I thought, I’m going to start a new day of being up on the news because I used to read the New York Times every morning, and then I got out of the habit. And I thought, “Oh, I don’t know anything about what’s going on in other parts of the world.”

So I went to the New York Times and I read all about what’s happening in China right now and what’s happening in Ukraine right now. Oh, it is really bad. I mean, what some people are going through right now and especially when it’s cold. And our hot water quit for a while this week. And, I had to take a cold shower in Pennsylvania in the winter. And, I think I literally cannot, while I did, it was a very unpleasant experience. But then I’m thinking about all the people who are in places like Northern Europe and northern China and North America for that, all the people everywhere in the world who are having problems with heating, cooling, whatever it is. We live in a really tiny temperature zone. Humans do. And for those who don’t have enough food, enough clothing, enough shelter, it’s brutal out there.

And so I read all about China and I’ve been to Northern China, I can feel the cold, there’s a certain cold that comes off the Gobi Desert that is like nothing else I’ve ever felt. And I’m feeling that and by the time I was done reading the paper, I literally could not function emotionally. And I remembered why I don’t always read the paper and never in the morning, this was my mistake. So I thought, but I have to, so it’s now nine o’clock in the morning and at four o’clock my time I’ll be doing the gathering room. And I was like, “I think I literally cannot.” But I know that both my hands work, both my arms work, all my brain is functioning, it is not true to say I literally cannot. However, there is a point that we all reach in our lives, so many people in the Ukraine and China and all over the world right now where you really literally cannot.

And I started thinking about the times in my life when I literally could not, for example, physically. I remember trying to go to give a speech in Texas once and I was standing at the airline ticket, I checked my luggage and I thought if I can get into the plane and let rest my head against the plane, I can stay awake and upright and not pass out. It didn’t happen. I got my ticket turned from the gate and just on the floor managed to regain consciousness and crawl over to a pillar and call someone who came and got me and woke up in the hospital. I literally could not go. I still feel bad about it. There are times when I literally cannot, you’ve had it too. There are times when you physically can’t. There are times when you emotionally literally cannot.

There are times when you logistically cannot. There’s just no way to get all the things going. And I kept thinking about how do we get aid to all these people, millions, billions of people. And the logistics of taking care of a human being for even one day, even one human being. It’s really a lot. And then you have to do it again the next day. And those of us who have cared for others, younger, older, disabled, sick, whatever, sometimes you literally cannot. So I thought, well what about the fact that we all get there? So there will be a time when we literally cannot draw another breath and then we get to depart from this physical experience. And I think it will be wonderful. I truly, truly believe that that will be wonderful getting there, not so wonderful. But once it’s there, I think it’s going to be wonderful.

However, we’ve got to cope until then, you and me, we’ve got to cope. And I remember literally when I was pregnant with my son Adam, and he’d been diagnosed with down syndrome and I was trying to take care of my other kid, and then I got the flu on top of this massive morning sickness that made me puke constantly. So emotionally I couldn’t, spiritually I couldn’t, physically I couldn’t, logistically I couldn’t. And I remember that I had read, for those of you who know the Bible, being raised religious, I remembered that there’s a place in the Bible where someone tries to curse God and die. I think it’s somebody’s wife, like Noah’s wife or something, and I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to try it.” That was the only thing I could think of. I’m going to curse God and die. And I was like, “Damn you God.” And then I waited to die and it didn’t work.

And, I had to hang in even though I literally could not. All of this made me think about the physical therapy I’ve been getting for the foot I had that literally could not keep walking. About five years… Well maybe eight or nine years ago, I broke my little toe walking around in South Africa in the nighttime out at the Safari Lodge. And, I just taped it to my next toe and kept going because that’s all they can do for them anyway, but it healed funny. And from then on, I developed worse and worse problems with this foot until they finally had to saw the bones apart and rearranged them. And for six to eight weeks, I literally could not do anything but lie there. Well, it healed, but it’s a different foot. My brain does not remember that foot. Jill Bald Taylor said to me, “Yeah, your brain doesn’t know this foot. The bones have been rearranged. You have to teach it. You have to be very loving to it and teach it.”

So, a while later, gimping around, limping around, I went to a physical therapist for some other reason, I damaged my shoulder or something. Well, this physical therapist is a miracle worker. I mean, she is so good. I think she’s actually superhuman. She’s so intuitive. I asked her once, “How do you know what to do so well?” Because all these people come through the door and they literally cannot. And she knows what to do to help strengthen them so that they can again. And, she said that she gets a hunch, she watches people walk around and then she just gets a hunch and she has tons of training, but she plays these hunches and it always seems to help. And I said, “Are you ever wrong?”

And she blushed and smiled and said, “No, not really.” Well, I go over to her little gym once a week and she works me like a rented mule. I am not kidding. I suffer in that place. And, she has me do weird things like stand on an incline plane on my bad foot and then do squats on the one foot while holding the other foot up and tossing and catching a heavy medicine ball as I do this. And I’m supposed to do eight reps, 10 reps. I can’t do it, sometimes I literally cannot do it. And she just stands there, “Eight, give me eight.” And she’s not mean. She’s just implacable. And so, she had me doing something this week where she did it, it was so simple for her, but for me to do it on my one bad foot, I mean it’s benefited tremendously, but the stuff she wants me to do on that one foot, I literally could not.

So, I was trying it and I would do one rap fall over sideways gag choke. I was trying to balance on the one foot that I’d get in position, I’d try to do this weird weightlifting thing. And I just kept falling down. And, I finally said to her, “I literally cannot.” And she was like, “All right, we’re going to change it a little bit.” So she changed it. So the bend I had to do to start, it was literally two inches less. And then she’s like, “Give me eight.” And I was still vomiting and falling over and stuff, but I could just barely do it. And I felt so proud of myself coming out and my foot was getting better. So I thought about the times when you really truly cannot because I literally could not.

And I thought, here’s the process you go through no matter what the limitation is, physical, logistical, emotional, spiritual, whatever. First thing to do when you literally cannot is quit. And I strongly recommend it. People always tell me, “Ah, quitters never win.” Yes, they do. Quit smoking, quit doing quite as much heroin or whatever. Quitting can be very, very advantageous. Quitting a terrible relationship is not a mark of failure, it’s a mark of courage and strength, and it sets both people free if you literally cannot.

So here’s the rule, if you really, really do not want to do it, and you really, really don’t have to do it, don’t do it. Okay? I love it if everyone here just apply that to something. If you think I literally cannot face it, think do I really have to do it? Do I really, really not want to do it? And if the answer to both those things is no, don’t do it. Even if the neighbors look at you funny, do not do it. All right that’s the first thing, quit. Next thing rest. So what my physical therapist had me to do most of the time, she had to modify the exercise, which is the next step. But usually I can do maybe one or two of the exercises that she does effortlessly to show me how. But then I have to stagger around the gym, puking, and gasping, and drinking water, and breathing hard, waiting for my heart rate to go down.

I mean, she makes me do these things with my tiny little adjustment muscles in my left leg that should not be cardiovascular, but my heart is pounding with the effort. So, she’ll let me take a few rests and maybe I can just do one and then I have to rest. But she makes me do eight of them and she makes me do two rounds. And I’m like, “Uh.” But I always feel like, “Yeah, I did it.” And furthermore, as the muscles learn to fire very often when I think I literally cannot, and then I do it in rest. When I go back, it’s just a little bit easier and a little bit easier, it’s the strangest phenomenon, but I’ve had it in other areas of my life. If you’re trying hard and then you rest, like writing is a really important place for this.

You write until you literally cannot, and then you rest, and you get up the next day and there’s fresh material waiting for you that’s been developed overnight in your brain. There are things your brain and body can only do after a period of sleep, at least deep rest, but ideally sleep. So if you really cannot face things, take a nap, go to sleep, lie down, lie flat. Remember what I said about the movement in China that is just tongue ping, which means lie flat and just rest until you can get up and try again if you really, really want to do it. The next thing is what my physical therapist finally did for me the other day, she modified the exercise, but I only had tiny little bit, right? So if there’s something you’re trying really hard to do, like raise children, which is probably the hardest thing there is in the universe on all the planets, in all the universes I’d like to just give them each a human baby and say, “Go for it.”

Because they probably literally cannot. But If you can’t do it the way you wish you could do it, modify it. So, I think I told you, our little Lila, two year old had her first ear infection the other day and we took her to the doctor and she was prescribed amoxicillin, which is a really good antibiotic, but they run out of children’s sizes. So they sold us adult amoxicillin. This is in the middle of the night, we’re at this all night pharmacy. And we were supposed to break the capsules and put them in something she would eat. And I gave the prescription to the pharmacist and then she saw that it was a child, two year old child. She was like, “Oh.” She’s like, “You’re going to have to break the capsules.”

I said, “I know. The doctor told me.” And she goes, “Abandon all your principles, all your ethics, just get this stuff into your child no matter what it takes.” So we spooned a lot of Nutella, which Lila had never tasted down her throat that night, and her ear got better. We modified the ideal parenting so that we could get the thing done, right? To get it to happen. So bring your standards down a little. Be okay with, “Done is better than good.” As Liz Gilbert likes to say. So, modify it so it’s a little easier and go for it again. And then finally, the final thing that I’ve done in my life is to go away and work on strengthening the part of myself that needs to do the work and then come back. This is what it was like when I published my first book and it went absolutely nowhere.

The publicist went into jury duty the day the book came out, and there was literally no publicity. Not that that book was ever going to be a bestseller anyway, but it was a super heartbreak for me to put it out there and have it go nowhere. And what I had to do was go away, I licked my wounds and then I thought, “Okay, I’m going to learn from this and write something that’s catchier.” Oh no, that’s not what happened. I wrote a novel that didn’t get… And then I get published and then I did publish one book and it didn’t go anywhere. And I said, I’m going to go rewrite that novel and make it more commercial and make it into a memoir. And, with my editor’s help, I was able to do that. And then I came back and what I literally couldn’t do before, I was now literally just barely able to do.

So, the four things, and do not go for that fourth one first because that is a bitter place to be. First of all, quit, quit, by all means quit. If you don’t want to quit rest and then go back to it. If you still can’t, literally can’t, then modify what you’re trying to do. And if you’ve modified it, and you’ve reduced it, and everything, and you still want to do something that you haven’t been able to do, go strengthen yourself. I went away from my physical therapy appointment and I said, “I’m going to do little strengthening exercises so the next time I go in there, by God I’m going to be able to do that thing.” And it may take me a long time, but that’s my approach. So, we now have some wonderful questions coming in.

City Lotus says, “But how can we actually do something that we feel we can’t do but actually want to do and can do? For instance, I have massive fears about seeing people and often feel, I can’t do this, but I want to.” I Have the same thing, I have massive social anxiety. Ooh, it’s hard. And I’ve done all kinds of things. Going on TV for me was a deal breaker because I would force myself to go do things, but I would shake, and my mouth would be dry, and it was really hard. And when I started going on TV, people started commenting on it because I was even more nervous, and it was really, really obvious. And I literally went to a psychiatrist and said, “I’ve heard that if there’s this blood fresher medication that helped Barbara Streisand go on stage again after crippling stage fright.” And the doctor said, “Oh yeah, I use those for golf.”

I was like, “All right, would you mind selling me some?” So I took this medication that just brings down your physical anxiety and I was able to just barely emotionally get myself there with the physical. I modified it. And what happened was, because I took the medication every time I went in on TV, my brain connected those things. And now when I see a TV camera, I actually have a calming effect that I used to get from the medication. I don’t need it anymore. So do not hesitate to go to someone for help. Hey, I didn’t even put that on the list. Hello. That’s where I’m not thinking, right? Yes. Get help, ask for help. And I did it in that case. And if you really, really want something and you’ve tried to do it and you can’t, tell everyone, go online, talk about it.

See who can help you. There’s so many places and people where that might be reaching out with something that can help you, and can’t always do it alone, but maybe you can do it if you have help. Jessica says, “I have a few days to rest and literally cannot even slow down. I need to and haven’t been able to do it. Help LOL.” That’s a really good point. You get conditioned into being hyper speedy because you’re trying to keep up with things. And, a lot of us do that with adrenaline and cortisol. And we know now that as a population, humans are so stuck in their fight or flight mind state that those hormones that are supposed to come bang very quickly when we’re attacked by a lion or something and then go away, they come and they stay. And the problem is that when you have free time and you can supposedly can settle and rest, your brain isn’t used to resting.

It’s always in fight or flight, fight or flight, like do, do, do, do, do. And I have done that periodically in my life until I reached absolute collapse. And that is not how you want to do it. So, I also wanted to say something about often when you think you cannot do it, and you’re trying all the ways and you don’t know, when you get to that quit stage, if you surrender to the situation, I really want this, I cannot do it, a touch of grace can come in. And this has happened often to me that just a little bit of grace comes to help me just a bit. So there’ll be a little spark of magic. And today, actually, I was getting the gathering room ready and someone came to visit that I wasn’t expecting, it’s somebody who comes and takes my son Adam out to do activities and she usually doesn’t come on a Sunday.

And so she came in and I was like, “Oh no.” I’m like, “I’m in my pajamas and everything’s a mess and I haven’t had a shower.” And so, I ended up chatting with her for a while and she’s a very magical person. And she was remind reminding me about when she came to meet us and we all were sitting around talking our whole family. And then this woman, I thought, maybe she’s read Expecting Adam because she’s dealt with adults with special needs. I said, “Have you read a book called Expecting Adam?” I don’t usually do that. And she’s like, “No.” And then so we kept talking, talking, and then suddenly I said something that made her know what my name was, I guess she just knew I was Marty. And I said, Martha Beck. And she went, “Wait, what? You’re Martha Beck.” And she had read another one of my books and was really into it.

And there was a sense of, oh my gosh, this person is so there’s a connection and there’s magic. And that same person came to the house today when I wasn’t expecting it and reminded me of that little touch of, oh, there’s a connection there. And I felt the magic in her. I literally felt it coming to the house with her and it lifted me a little. And I felt so much gratitude at that little bit of grace. But seeing that whatever God is, God is like my physical therapist, never just does it for us, never makes it super easy no problem. Modifies it maybe an inch and then says, “Give me eight.” And you’re like, “Ah, I love you for doing that to me.” And that is how I go through my life. So, if you can’t slow down, then either go until you collapse, find somebody who makes you laugh and can get you offline again, or just run around in tight circles eventually it will end.

You will run out of stress hormones, and then you will need to fall down, and rest, and you will, and it will be great. But look for the moments of grace too. Donna says, “How do you manage self-loathing and feeling like a failure that happens when you quit or rest. Whenever I literally can’t, I truly feel like a useless slug.” Well, that’s just an integrity problem, frankly. Now, in my last book, the Way of Integrity, I point out that much of our suffering comes not from things that happen to us, but from our thoughts about things that happen to us. And it’s the thoughts that are punishing. So say Donna, couldn’t manage to shovel the walks in a snowstorm. Really literally could not. Okay, there’s snow on the walk. Do you call a neighbor? Do you sprinkle salt? There are different things you could do or do you sit in your house and call yourself a failure and a slug?

You could do anything, all of those things or nothing at all. But if you don’t call yourself a useless slug, you’re not going to take that hit to your emotions, to your heart. And the reason it’s so horrible when it hits you is that it’s a lie. It’s not just that it’s negative and punitive, it’s that it’s not true. So if you have a thought in your head that repeatedly makes you loathe yourself, check it for literal truth. Literal. This whole gathering room is about literal things. Are you literally a useless slug? Why, no. You have arms and legs. You are not a slug. Then you can go to work on useless. I guarantee that’s a lie as well. But we throw those things at ourselves and we do feel like useless slugs. Who should be able to do it when we literally can’t.

So quit calling yourself a useless slug first of all, and then move on because you are not useless slug. No one here is you are beautiful and perfect exactly as you are. Jen says, “How do you tell the literal from what your brain is telling you? In other words, the new edge you find with coaching help, surprising new levels of ability.” That actually it’s pertains to what I said about getting help. There’s a place where I’m very, very driven to do the things I really want to do, but there’s a place beyond which I cannot drive myself at that point. If I’m with other people, I’m able to go to that new level. I discovered this in high school, one of a few of my friends and I, we were studying for a bunch of really hard exams, the advanced placement exams. I don’t even know if they still have them.

Anyway, we all wanted to take a bunch of these things and they were really hard. So, we would get together in a room in the library and we all had to study for half an hour, and then we’d look at each other and talk for 10 minutes, and then back in for half an hour. And we were able to push ourselves. Remember there was a rest there. And there was also help, in terms of other people around you who wanted you to succeed. And just being there, just having someone be there with you can drive you to new heights. My physical therapist is not going to physically batter me if I don’t do what she says. But her presence, her uncompromising expectation that I can do this, it changes everything for me. So look for other people’s energy to join with yours. I bet everybody on the gathering room would show up for any other person on the gathering room just to be present while you try.

And if you try with another person there, it’s amazing what you can do. Okay, I’m the Valerie says, “How to comfort the part of myself that really wanted to do what I planned and literally cannot do, it cares so much about cultural pressure and stuff.” Oh, I know. And sometimes it’s not cultural pressure. Sometimes like you literally can’t stay alive until your children grow up or for that matter have children. There are things you literally cannot do that will break your heart to smithereens whether or not you have cultural pressure. So, at that point you really have to become the higher self that can love the self that is experiencing the loss. So I’ve talked about this before, that there’s a higher self, there’s a little animal self, that is a monkey. So it feels social pressure and physical pressure, and physical suffering and grief.

And then there’s a bigger part, a part that’s continuous with the whole universe. Where if you can find that, and you can go either into the deep center of yourself or you can imagine a huge version of yourself that is much bigger than your little monkey self. And if you can find just a bit of compassion for the one who literally cannot, they say in Asia, “Imagine yourself with your head in the lap of the Buddha.” And the Buddha just means a completely enlightened being who is pure compassion. So sometimes you have to be your own Buddha and you can put your head in the lap of the Buddha and say, “This hurts so much that I can’t, I literally can’t.” And that love, if you let it in, will stroke your head and say, “Yeah, you literally can’t and I’m right here and it’ll be okay.”

You have to go through the grieving, but know that there is a love that will contain the grieving. First you can imagine it, then you’ll feel it, then you’ll get signs from the universe, then you’ll get people walking in to show you that you’re not by yourself. Okay, Cheryl says, “How do you know if you can’t do it or if you’re just making excuses for yourself? I’m the master at talking myself out of things, being kind to myself when I really need tough love.” You’ve identified the problem so beautifully, and since you know this pattern, you can try quitting, you can try resting, you can try modifying, you can try strengthening, or actually the point that I didn’t even put in my prep is becoming the most important one, connect with someone else and say, “Let’s do this. I think I can literally do it, but I’m not. Can I make a promise to you and you can help me literally do it.”

See if connecting can help, if not, try these other things, try saying, “I will take a rest and I’ll do something wonderful for five minutes, and then I will try for five minutes, and then I will rest for five minutes.” And see if you can go to it by inch, by inch, by inch. That’s all you need to do. Carlene says, “How do you follow the steps? If you are already in a collapsed state?” Well that’s where the quitting and the resting comes in. The steps for something you literally cannot do. Check and see if you need to surrender, that’s the quitting part. Be kind to the part of you that isn’t able to go forward for whatever reason.

And let that part rest. Comfort that part, stand by that part, call a friend who can stand by that part. Modify what you’re trying to do and then just allow yourself to gather strength in the faith that you are being carried through those parts of your life where you really can’t go on. I was talking a minute ago about how I tried to curse God and die when I had the flu, and the pregnancy, and the down syndrome, and everything. And there was a point at which I started hemorrhaging and actually would’ve died.

I had what’s called a placental abruption. And usually if that happens… First of all it’s very rare if you haven’t been in a car accident or something. Usually the baby and the mother both die. And, this is when my then husband was out of the country, and I started bleeding really heavily. But I had my daughter, my oldest kid, who’s non binary, but I didn’t know it at the time. And, I remember lying there and saying, “I literally can’t do this.” And I felt hands touching me, and they were big hands. I was so near unconscious, I thought, those are male hands. And I said, “Look, I don’t think, this is a female problem.” I don’t know why I was thinking this, but the hands went away and then other hands came back and they were smaller. And, I woke up about eight hours later.

I was on a couch, I don’t know how I got there because I’d fall into the floor. And the bleeding had stopped, which it never does in cases of placental abruption. So the diagnosed it and couldn’t explain what had happened. So the touches of grace, they come and you literally… Until the time comes when you are meant to go, you literally cannot be helped. There is no way to not go on, if you can surrender, and learn to rest and trust, and reach out, and be loving to yourself, you literally can get through absolutely everything you’re meant to. And one last thing I want to say though, it’s over time. You don’t have to be at death store. That’s where I allowed it in because I had been taught that until I was at death store I had to do it myself. As I’ve come to believe there’s something caring for us in the world.

I can get divine grace for a cold shower. I can’t do this. God help me. I made it through the cold shower folks. You’ll be glad to know. Yeah, I think that grace is waiting for us. It wants us not only to be able to make it wants us to enjoy life, and to be happy, and to have fun, and to have abundance, and to have plenty. So don’t think you have to be at the literal end of your rope before you say, “God, I got a little help with this please.” Because I think that the forces of grace are standing eager and waiting to be allowed to help us. So, I’m going to go practice that for the rest of the day. In the meantime, I literally can trust that we’ll all be here in another week’s time for another version of the Gathering Room. I love you all so much. Thank you for coming.

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