I’d like you to come on a road trip with me. Imagine you’ve packed your bags, we’ve decided on a destination, the soundtrack has been selected and the car has been loaded with everything you and I would need for our journey. Before we depart, we drive to the nearest filling station to have the tyre pressure and oil levels checked and to fill up with fuel. We both get out at the filling station to stock up on snacks, water, cold drinks and perhaps some coffee to keep us awake on our drive.
Now if you’re thinking you do not know me from a bar of soap and would rather chew your toenails than to get in a car with me, much less go on a long journey, I promise I won’t be offended, as I too am reluctant to get in the car with strangers – but just go with the analogy for now, or imagine someone else in my place, someone you actually know and like. Better yet, leave everyone else at home, or at the office or wherever and go on this road trip alone.
As much as most of us are reluctant to think or talk about it too much, as self-aware creatures, we humans know that our existence on this planet is temporary. Regardless of our religious beliefs or life view, most people know that our physical bodies are going to die. Whether or not you agree with the French Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, when he says that we are spiritual beings having a temporary human experience, there is a sense that what animates us, our thoughts and emotions, what some would call the soul, is separate from the physical body.
This inner you can be likened to the driver, and the car is the body. The body is a flesh and blood vehicle for the soul – taking us to our ultimate destination. For many, this final destination is Heaven but we can also break up this trip into shorter journeys where perhaps the destination would be that corner office, or a white picket fence or a deluxe apartment in the sky. Whatever you aspire to achieve; we cannot get away from the duality of existence – a physical body and an invisible essence or soul.
Just like a car, which requires regular maintenance, our bodies also need to be looked after. That obviously includes taking care of our outward appearance but it also involves taking responsibility for our health. Knowing our key numbers for heart health – cholesterol, blood pressure and waist size – as well as our risk for diseases like diabetes, cancer etc. and, most importantly, doing something to reduce and manage those risks, increases your likelihood of getting more mileage from your body.
Talking about optimizing your body, the kind of “fuel” we put into it is also a key component. Our relationship with food is so complex that fuelling our bodies is only one of its roles – food is also a major source of pleasure, worry and stress. Food can be seen as a form of social currency. We offer others food to show them that we care. We reward our children – and ourselves – for a job well done with a special treat. We use it as a bribe; if you clean your room, I’ll take you for pizza. Food plays so many roles in our lives – we eat when we’re happy, we eat when we’re sad, we eat when we’re bored.
I’m told that if you put petrol in a diesel engine, or vice versa, the entire engine seizes. Likewise, the right kind of food leaves us feeling energized and full of life, while the wrong kind leaves us feeling sluggish and can even make us sick. My father once said about someone that she is digging her grave with her teeth, a mental image that made an indelible impression on my young mind.
Unlike (most) motor vehicles, which can run for hours and days on end, only needing to stop to refuel, our bodies need physical rest to perform at its peak. Getting enough, quality sleep is crucial for:
- Learning and memory: Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later.
- Metabolism and weight: Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite.
- Safety: Sleep debt contributes to a greater tendency to fall asleep during the daytime. These lapses may cause falls and mistakes such as medical errors, air traffic mishaps, and road accidents.
- Mood: Sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness. Too little sleep can also leave you too tired to do the things you like to do.
- Cardiovascular health: Serious sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, and irregular heartbeat.
I’m no mechanic, but it seems to me that controlling the temperature of the engine is quite important. Antifreeze not only prevents the engine from freezing but also protects it against overheating (it makes no sense to me whatsoever, but I’m told this is the way of the car and for lack of knowledge, I shall accept it). Relaxation would be the body’s version of antifreeze as it prevents us from overheating emotionally. If you aren’t getting enough time to relax, you may find yourself feeling tense and stressed out. The long-term effects of unaddressed stress on our health include chest pain, headaches, digestive issues, anxiety, depression changes in sexual desire and the ability to focus.
A lack of relaxation also sucks the fun out of life – you know, “all work and no play makes (insert your name here) a dull boy/girl. But what if you struggle to relax, or find it difficult to find the time to relax? A quick way to lower the stress hormone cortisol and increase the feel good hormones serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin is to pet an animal for 15 minutes. Physical touch does the same – so book that massage, or even just hug it out with a caring friend or relative.
Deep relaxation, like meditation, when practiced regularly not only relieves stress and anxiety, but also is shown to improve mood. Meditation also has many other potential benefits – it can decrease blood pressure, relieve pain, and improve your immune and cardiovascular systems.
My father is a lifelong member of the Automobile Association, so I grew up with this idea that there’s this entity called the AA, which will help you out in your hour of need. When I started driving, a friend’s father insisted that she becomes a member of the AA before he would agree to buy her a car, saying one never knows when one might need their help. I cannot recall the first time I heard about the other AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) but it kinda made sense that this entity too would help our people in need. What both these organisations have in common (apart from their abbreviations) is that they offer help – but only to those who ask for it.
Asking for help is something many of us struggle with. We’re afraid we might look weak, or foolish, or incapable, or somehow less than perfect. Yet we all need assistance at some point or another. No one on this entire planet knows absolutely everything or can do everything. There comes a time when we all need advice or assistance (get it? AA) and the only way we’re going to get it, is to ask for it. The auto guys would have no idea that you’re stuck next to the side of the road unless you called them – and likewise, the other AA wouldn’t know you needed help unless you take the first step and ask for help. I fact, as far as I know, admitting that you have a problem and asking for help is a prerequisite to becoming a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Before technology came and saved us from ourselves – you know, with men being unable to ask for directions and women being unable to read maps – you would have to plan your route carefully to make sure that you reach the next filling station before your fuel tank ran dry. Whether you are one of those people who only stop for fuel and body breaks or whether you like to meander through the countryside, stopping at every little town and village, you have to have a plan of sorts to get you to your destination. Even though GPS technology makes it easier – showing us exactly which road to drive, how far the next stop is, how long the drive is – we still have to have a destination in mind.
The type, model and colour of the car you drive should actually be irrelevant – as long as it gets you where you want to be – but, living in a material world and buying in to the false myth that we can measure our own worth by our material possessions, we as humans have attached value and judgement to the brand of vehicle in our driveway. In much the same way, we tend to judge people by their outward appearance.
As unfair as it is, study after study has shown that attractive, slim and young people get preferential treatment over their less attractive, fat and older counterparts. If you don’t believe me, Google it – I tried to cite a few studies, but there is just so many that choosing which ones to include became tedious. Many of them are summarized and discussed in the 2011 book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, written by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas in Austin.
The problem with this is obvious; we get so fixated on outward appearance that we overlook and undervalue people who have a great deal to offer – like loyalty, honesty, empathy, kindheartedness etc. etc. etc. And while we can trade in our old jalopy for a new(er) vehicle, we cannot trade in our bodies (just yet) – so judging people by something they had absolutely no control over is not only unfair, it’s also cruel and unkind.
Having said that, there are cars – and people – who are faster than ours and I think anyone who’s ever driven on a highway would agree with me that there are few things as frustrating as a slow driver in the fast lane. The saying ‘stay in your lane’ comes to mind – in other words mind your own business. It’s often so tempting, standing on the outside looking in, to judge and offer unsolicited advice. As a Life Coach, I firmly believe that the only time people really listen to advice, is when it resonates with what they already know is best for them.
In South Africa, the golden rule is “Keep left, pass right”. In life, the golden rule is “Love thy neighbour as thyself” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I’ve taken these from the Bible – but every religion has similar tenets. The Bible quotes the Torah, while the Quran states “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.”
For me, there are three components to this; Love, your neighbour, and yourself. So much has already been said about the first two, but I would like to briefly stand still at the third. We are taught from a young age to put others’ needs ahead of ours – especially us women. We spend all our energy looking after the needs of others, very often at the expense of our own mental and physical health. I often say to clients that we allow other people to be the main characters in the story about our lives. It is your story. You have to be the main character. Don’t be a supporting actor in your movie!
There is a difference between selfishness and self-love or honouring yourself. My best friend is a very wise teacher who uses a lovely analogy to explain how we give our energy to others. She explains: “The heart is a cup, which God fills with love. That which is inside the cup is for you. That which overflows is to give to others. What we (especially us women) do is to turn over our cups and pour out every last drop for other people – and then we wonder why we feel so empty! When our cups are turned over, God cannot fill it. Keep what God gives to you for you. There is always abundance, there will be more than enough overflow to give to others.”
The fuel we put in our cars – whether we drive a gleaming sports car or a rusted tin bucket with only one working window – determines whether we will be able to drive it. There’s also interplay between the type of fuel, the make and age of the car and the speed we drive that determine how far a tank will take us. Our bodies obviously need physical fuel, in the form of food, and the type of food and our bodies’ individual reaction to it obviously determine how much energy we have to go out and achieve the goals we’ve set out for ourselves.
Just like motor vehicle maintenance is an important factor to keeping our cars roadworthy and in working condition, we have to maintain our physical bodies. I’m not a health expert (see how nicely I’m staying in my lane?), but we know that looking after our health is a key component to making sure our bodies serve us as long as possible. As I mentioned before, we cannot trade them in (yet), so it makes sense to look after them as best we could.
Life is a highway – buckle up!