William McRaven devoted thirty-seven years of his life to the U.S. Navy. He served as a SEAL, rising to become a team commander and, eventually, a four-star admiral. Near the end of his career McRaven was Commander of all U.S. Special Operations Forces. He was actively involved in some of the most precarious missions in the War on Terror, including the capture of Saddam Hussein and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
When Admiral McRaven was asked to deliver the commencement address to the 2014 graduating class at the University of Texas, he was uncertain of how he would be received. He wrote, “Even though the university was my alma mater, I was concerned that a military officer, whose career had been defined by war, might not find a welcoming audience among college students. But to my great surprise, the graduating class embraced the speech.” With a life so filled with dangerous missions, stressful life-and-death decisions, and intense dedication, hearers would be right to expect profound lessons from Admiral McRaven’s speech.
The first counsel offered to the graduates? “Make your bed.”
In his 2017 book by that title, he recounts the powerful discipline and routine instilled in him by Navy training. The first task of the day, every day, was making his bed. It would be checked by the chief petty officer every morning and failing to pass meant becoming a “sugar cookie” – entering the ocean, then rolling in the sand until covered head to toe. Yet, over time, the simple act of making his bed became a source of stability for him. Even after no petty officer loomed over his mattress to conduct the dreaded “quarter test” (it should bounce high enough for the officer to catch), McRaven’s first act every day was making his bed.
Why is such a seemingly small act so important to a man whose life has been filled with world-changing events? He wrote, “It is not just combat. It is daily life that needs this same sense of structure. Nothing can replace the strength of comfort of one’s faith, but sometimes the simple act of making your bed can give you the lift you need to start your day and provide the satisfaction to end it right.”
We all need structure and routine to give a sense of order to our lives, particularly in the most stressful seasons. Right now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people find their lives somewhat turned upside down. Schools are closed, workplaces are shut down, entire states are under “shelter in place” orders. More parents are now homeschooling out of necessity, people are working remotely, and even churches can only “gather” online. Framing our days around specific routines can help provide a sense of accomplishment and stability in the midst of the numerous things in life that are out of our control.
Making your bed is a good start. It’s great advice. But, here are a few others to consider. You may already practice these. If so, consider this encouragement to keep at it. If not, give them a try.
- Morning Prayer
“O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with the firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of this coming day with all that it will bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray You Yourself in me. Amen.”
– Attributed to St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow (1782-1867)
- Evening Prayer
“Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
– The Book of Common Prayer
- Follow a Schedule
If your normal routine has been disrupted, be sure to establish another. If needed, set a bed time. Set your morning alarm. Block out hours for work – both when to begin and when to stop. If you are unexpectedly homeschooling, block out times for that as well.
I realize I am preaching to the choir, but reading great literature can provide a healthy escape during unsettled times (as opposed to escapism).
- Take Care of Yourself
Eat as well as you can under the circumstances.
Get dressed. You may be a fan of working and schooling in comfort, but remaining in pajamas does little to motivate hard work.
Make time to exercise – it will help you manage stress, combat anxiety, and better face difficulty.
Get enough sleep.
None of these suggestions are novel. You have likely read and heard them all before. Yet, when life feels particularly stressful or out of control, we become horribly forgetful people. The little things matter, so do not neglect them. Let us remind ourselves of the important things. In the words of Marcus Aurelius:
“Calm down. Be simple. Has someone done something wrong? He has wronged himself. Has something happened to you? Fine. Every thread of your life was woven on the great loom of destiny from the beginning. The conclusion? Life is short. Save the moment by doing what is reasonable and right. Be serious, but not with fears and frets and frowns” (The Emperor’s Handbook, IV.26).