I have a particular fondness for the expression “death by a thousand cuts.” It can be a colorful — albeit dramatic — way to express how something makes us feel “tortured” when the word “torture” itself is obviously an overstatement.
It also aptly describes the way most things in our life “die.” The destruction of what we hold most sacred rarely happens in one big blow (although that can certainly happen: houses leveled by storms, a freak accident, etc).
More often, things tend to sneak up on us through smaller “cuts.” None of these cuts are fatal in themselves, but they add up to a slow and painful demise that we didn’t see coming. They are like little pulls in a knit sweater, we might begin to tug at one, then another, then another, until we find ourselves surrounded in loose string, wondering how the fabric unraveled.
Maybe because we were focused on the bigger hits or threats, or maybe because we were too busy or preoccupied to look at all.
If you look around, you can see this play out in a range of contexts, in the outer world and within you.
Tearing At The Fabric of Our Lives
Too often we focus on the bigger things at the expense of the little things, not realizing that the little things become the big things. I can give dozens of examples, but I’ll focus on a few core areas.
Relationships rarely fall apart because of one isolated incident. More often, it’s the accumulation of dozens of small infractions that eroded trust and created separation.
Our self-trust does not crumble from one decision that didn’t take us down our desired path, but from years of conditioning to follow authority figures and conform to the rules, and from explicit and implicit messages that there is a “right” choice in every situation.
So too, our self-worth. What takes us from that state of wholeness in which we existed at birth into a state of feeling “not enough” is not one isolated comment someone made or one advertisement you watched one time. Rather it is a consistent barrage of messaging from the world and from those closest to us that, over time, entrained us to the message that we need to do more, try harder, be more elegant, more graceful, more tough, more resilient, more of whatever we are not.
These messages became the voices in your head that tell you you’re not good enough, creating anxiety and other challenges.
They are cuts that diminish us, causing us to detach from the truth of who we are and the aliveness of life.
Death by a thousand cuts.
The Cuts to Our Days
This pattern also extends to our days, and as go our days, so too our lives.
In Sabbath, Wayne Muller writes:
We do not feel how much energy we spend on each activity, because we imagine we will always have more energy at our disposal. This one little conversation, this one extra phone call, this one quick meeting, what can it cost? But it does cost, it drains yet another drop of our life. Then, at the end of days, weeks, months, years, we collapse, we burn out, and cannot see where it happened. It happened in a thousand unconscious events, tasks, and responsibilities that seemed easy and harmless on the surface but that each, one after the other, used a small portion of our precious life. (emphasis added) 
Death by a thousand cuts.
In a culture that prizes overwork as a virtue, often the only thing that stops us is physical illness, injury, collapse, burnout or the crushing weight of anxiety that freezes us in place and keeps us from moving forward in our lives and work.
The antidote, according to Muller, is rest:
Rest is an essential enzyme of life, as necessary as air. Without rest, we cannot sustain the energy needed to have life.
Too often, we view these illnesses and injury as intrusions and interruptions — things that have taken us off-track and off pace. They slow us down, take us out of our rhythm. We impatiently sit on the sidelines while we “recover,” only to jump back into the race, this time at a faster pace, trying to make up for “lost time.”
We don’t learn.
Or maybe some of us learn more slowly than others. I’ve been through several rounds of this, stretching back to high school. Four rounds with mono, a string of issues in the early part of my career, brain injury, burnout.
Finally, I hit on something:
What if the point of these illnesses and injuries is to intrude and interrupt, to take us out of our rhythms — to force us into new rhythms and routines?
The point is not to rest only until we’ve healed the surface illness or injury and then jump back in as if nothing happened. It’s to incorporate rest into the rhythms of our days, into the fabric of our lives.
The Process of Healing
Just like we can cause death by a thousand cuts, we can create life through a thousand small moments of healing.
Each time we pause to rest, we restore a small piece of our energy. Each act of sitting in stillness, listening to the silence, and going within reaffirms our wholeness. Each moment we choose to be as we are, we celebrate our enoughness and repair our self-trust and self-worth.
In an instant-gratification culture, we often want the quick fix — what pill can I take, what 7-day program will get me back on track most quickly. It doesn’t work that way. The damage was done over time, and the healing will be too.
With commitment to the process we can heal our wounds, one cut at a time.
- Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. Bantam, 1999. p. 19. ↩