Shoulder to the wheel

A depiction I’ve become fascinated with lately, primarily since the end of the lockdown is the image of putting one’s shoulder to the wheel. This idiom (?) has been popularly used since more agrarian times where a labourer would hop off his cart or plow and push it out of a ditch or a bog. The farmer’s shoulder would literally be against the wheel and with a mighty effort, he would be able to drive the wheel out of the ground and back on track. Interestingly, in my research (read this as ‘sleepily reading my phone at an obscene hour while putting a toddler back to bed’) for this blog I discovered that one of the first recorded notations of the saying came from Aesop in the fable ‘Hercules & the Wagoner’. The fable is as follows…

A Farmer was driving his wagon along a miry country road after a heavy rain. The horses could hardly drag the load through the deep mud, and at last came to a standstill when one of the wheels sank to the hub in a rut.

The farmer climbed down from his seat and stood beside the wagon looking at it but without making the least effort to get it out of the rut. All he did was to curse his bad luck and call loudly on Hercules to come to his aid. Then, it is said, Hercules really did appear, saying:

“Put your shoulder to the wheel, man, and urge on your horses. Do you think you can move the wagon by simply looking at it and whining about it? Hercules will not help unless you make some effort to help yourself.”

And when the farmer put his shoulder to the wheel and urged on the horses, the wagon moved very readily, and soon the Farmer was riding along in great content and with a good lesson learned.

Image supplied from

Knowing Aesop is good for a life lesson or two, the moral of the ‘Hercules and the Wagoner‘ is “Self-help is the best help”. Let it be very clear, I don’t agree with this at all. Our best help may come from a supportive network of others. Help may come from unknown places. Help may come from a friend. Help may come from a community rallying together in a time of need. Help may come from the Bible. Nevertheless, I cannot tell you the amount of times I’ve prayed the words ‘Lord, help me keep my shoulder on the wheel’ this year – most recently this very morning pulling into the carpark at work.

It has been a difficult year hasn’t it? 2021 started with such hope and expectation. We so desperately wanted to not have another 2020, we made plans (albeit cautiously), we changed our processes and claimed to have new appreciations of work, family, life.

However, it all happened again, and in a more dramatic manner. In our part of the world, our community experienced floods and the grips of a school in an LGA concern. The stresses of an extended period of teaching and learning in lockdown, in an incongruous combination of both a physically disconnected but digitally present world took their toll. Adults who I had previously seen unshaken were struggling, as we all shaped our day around an 11am briefing that became literally the only thing was talked about. A new reality emerged, that after the longest time, we were being asked to live with. Our daily endeavours – work, family, shopping, side hustles looked and felt different, very different. Checking in (and out, Kerrilyn!), masks, vaccinations, boosters, travel restrictions.

They called it the new normal. How easy had things like that used to roll off the tongue?

And then at some point, it became white noise. I liken it to a numbing of the senses. For so long it had felt like the last thread holding the rope together and then….snap.

The months of treading water and maintaining my sense of self were too much. There were other factors; there always are, and I know I wasn’t alone in this. I wished more people felt comfortable saying things like this. It’s real.

I guess here is where the proverbial wheel was bogged. For many of us, we were being asked to put our shoulders to the wheel.

School playgrounds and tea rooms filled again.

Weary teachers gleaned energy and enthusiasm from their children, some of whom returned more aware of a world that isn’t always blue skies.

Families and friends reunited. Zoom birthdays were exchanged for ‘face to face’ ones.

There was that bizarre picnic rule.

‘Bubbles’ appeared .

Hope emerged.

It wasn’t without its challenges though. There were new ones. Old challenges too. Our relationships with others, our workplaces, our governments emerged frayed. People were raw. And after months of being dictated to, people took opportunities that they hadn’t taken prior. You know the ones you said you’d always get to but didn’t because life was busy?

My lockdown project was not just growing my hair to the standing length it was in 2002 chasing the dream of having locks like Xavier Rudd, but it was also the decision to go back to uni. My postgraduate study in Education Design began during lockdown, and after handing in the second of two assessments for my module this last weekend, I can say that it has been one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Did you do anything? How did the events of this year act as a catalyst for your adjacent possible*?

How have you reacted when Hercules figuratively said “Put your shoulder to the wheel, man, and urge on your horses. Do you think you can move the wagon by simply looking at it and whining about it?

Now here we are in early December, and people like myself, are willing themselves to put their shoulder to the wheel daily – sometimes momentarily. And that’s okay. Other times, I’m sitting in the mud whinging and wishing the wheel could move itself. And it does feel good to have a whinge, but we all know that the wheel doesn’t move itself.

On other occasions, I’m oft complaining and hoping for someone else to come in and do the heavy lifting. If you’re lucky, there may be people in your life who do step up and help out. These people are precious, and I am grateful for these people in my life.

Now what is written here is not a wonderful piece of prose like Aesop. We’re not even in the same literary realm. I don’t have Sinek-ism to pop into Canva and then onto social media and I certainly cannot claim to have a marketable key of relief to life’s tribulations either.

What I do have though, is just this – sometimes we need to put our shoulder to the wheel. “Do you think you can move the wagon by simply looking at it and whining about it?

* I love the term adjacent possible. I can’t recall where I heard it first, but this Medium article by Martin Erlic is ***chef’s kiss***