We all make our own sandwiches: A short story about life that got me through the Marine Corps

Two construction workers were hired for the same big job, and although they didn’t know each other, they soon started eating lunch together during their breaks. Each day, the two men would take a seat near their work, pop open the lunch boxes they brought from home, and exchange pleasant, if not superficial, conversation about their day as they ate and rested.

Each day, as both men opened their lunch boxes to survey what was inside, one would audibly sigh and exclaim, “God, I hate tuna fish.” He would then reluctantly pull the plastic wrapped sandwich out of the box, begrudgingly unwrap it, and unhappily chew away at the white bread, tuna, and mayonnaise combination, seemingly willing to weather yet another terrible meal in favor of staving off starvation. Finally, after a week of watching the same spectacle each day, the second construction worker interrupted the daily ceremony of tuna fish and misery:

“Hey man, if you hate tuna fish so much, why don’t you just ask your old lady to make something else?” He asked his lunchtime compatriot.

“Old lady? I’m not married?” The first man replied through a mouthful of his least favorite lunch.

“Then who keeps making you that?” The second man asked.

“Me.” Came the reply. “I make my own sandwiches.”

If I’m being honest, I’m not sure anymore where I first heard that story. It may have been in a book, or maybe it was conveyed to me by some older, wiser guy that spotted me wandering through life with a downtrodden look on my face… but wherever it came from, this short story about two construction workers eating lunch would go on to change the entire course of my life for the better.

At first glance, the story almost seems nonsensical: why would someone continue to make themselves the same lunch, day after day, despite hating it? What type of person would do such a thing? In terms of sandwiches, perhaps not many of us. In terms of life choices, however, I believe it’s something that we all do.

Your tuna fish sandwich may be continuing to work in a job that you hate, ignoring the bills stacking up in your mailbox, eating a third piece of cake despite knowing that you’re full. You may continue to entertain toxic relationships in your personal life, or you might be ignoring the positive efforts of your loved ones. We all do things that make our lives more difficult, and then defend those choices using words like comfort, easy, or worst of all, “deserve.”

“It’s just easier to keep this job than to start looking for another one.”

“I know he treats me badly, but I’m comfortable here and I don’t want to try dating again.”

“I had a hard day – I deserve another drink.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with making hard choices and sticking with them, just like there’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself with some cake, vodka, or both when you’ve had a long day or accomplished a goal. The problem arises when you make conscious decisions that will negatively affect your life, and then lament the repercussions as “bad luck” when it comes time to deal with them.

You’re overweight because of your eating and exercise habits. Your relationship is struggling because you need to either put more effort in or leave. Your job sucks because it isn’t right for you. You’re eating tuna fish because you made it. Life isn’t easy, and sometimes we’re stuck doing things that make us unhappy. There’s no getting around that – but often, we possess the power to remove negative influences in our lives, but we choose not to out of fear of change. You’ll keep plugging away at the same old 9-5 because you’re afraid to go looking elsewhere. You’ll keep eating that bag or doritos because the split second endorphin release you get with each bite is more valuable to you right now than how you’ll feel in the morning. You’ll stay with the wrong man or woman because, unhappy as you are, you’re too afraid of being alone.

In the Marines, I often felt as though I didn’t have any power over my own destiny. Where I went, what I did, and how I did it was all dictated by a chain of command and endless SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures)… but it wasn’t until I started leading Marines that I truly started to recognize how much autonomy I had in the execution of my duties. Sure, I may have been stuck in the duty hut for 24 hours – but it was my decision to spend it miserable, rather than studying for my degree. When it came time to deploy, I didn’t choose our destination or timetable, but it was my choice to either pursue learning a new language and culture… or spend who knows how many more hours staring at the wall of my tent and wishing I was somewhere else.

Making emotional allowances doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a weak one – they make you human – but once you decide to stop permitting yourself the convenience of yet another miserable tuna fish sandwich lunch, you might be amazed to find that things really do get better. Hard days will still be there, but they get easier when you stop convincing yourself to do what’s wrong for you, and start putting that effort toward doing what’s right.

You might not have the option to leave that job you hate, but you can change how you approach it. You might not be ready to leave a household that makes you unhappy, but you can address your problems with your significant other. You’re still going to have make a sandwich in the morning if you want to eat something at lunch… but you can decide to make it something you’d want, instead of something you’ll tolerate.

In the Marine Corps and since, I’ve found myself in some pretty tough spots. I’ve been low, depressed, unhappy, and angry – but I resist the urge to blame my feelings on fate. I make my sandwiches, and sure, sometimes I don’t like them. I succeed or fail based on my own decisions, my own efforts, and when I’m met with setbacks, I do occasionally shake my fist at the sky in spite, but then I try to temper my existential woe with realistic objectivity. If I’m unhappy, what can I change? If I’m angry, what needs to be fixed? If I’m hurting, who can I talk to?

Just like that construction worker, we’re each faced with a decision every morning: are you going to make choices that lead to a better life… or will it be tuna fish again?

It’s up to you – because we all make our own sandwiches.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons