Recently I was having lunch with a friend. Last time I saw him he was pretty much in despair over the loss of his job and the career that had for 20-odd years defined him. He had gained a lot of weight, he was unshaven, his hair was shaggy and he admitted that he’d been drinking too much.
This time, however, his hair was neatly trimmed and he’d dropped twenty pounds. He looked like a new man. Being male, I immediately assumed he’d found a new girlfriend but in fact he’d just decided to regain control of his life (actually, his current girlfriend had given him a gentle kick in the pants and told him to get moving on reinventing himself).
When I asked him about the secret to his transformation, he said, “I’ve stopped drinking and I’ve started to make my bed”. I thought he was being allegorical about the bed but he was serious. “I know it’s silly but if I have the discipline to make my bed every morning, no matter what happens during the day, I know I’ve started things off under control. And when it is time to sleep, instead of the tangled mess of sheets I woke up to, I see that nicely made bed and I’m reminded that I’m taking control of my life”. It made sense in a funny sort of way.
I know a number of people, including myself, for whom cutting out alcohol was the first step towards reclaiming control in their life. I’m not talking about people with drinking problems, just people who had gradually started to drink more than they used to as their life became more stressful and unsettled (like Tony Blair). Resisting the crutch of alcohol is the first step towards a healthier lifestyle that includes eating better and exercising. It takes as much self-discipline to break that end-of-day cocktail (or three!) habit as it does forcing yourself to eat salad instead of steak or spend forty-five minutes on the treadmill in the morning. But in each case you get the self-fulfilling benefit of taking care of yourself as well as the confidence gained by being the master of at least some part of your world.
We all know that the debilitating stress in our lives comes from the things we can’t control. This helplessness grinds us down and can cause us to succumb in other areas of our life. But that’s no way to live! Once you’ve licked your wounds, and flirted with despair, you need to build things back up. Start with the things you can control; your immediate surroundings, your behaviour, your health and your relationships. Every step you take restores your confidence and prepares you for the next bit of progress.
As my friend said with his old ironic smile, “Now that I make the bed so nicely every morning, I’m inspired to start washing the sheets more often too!”