I am very anti-whining in journal writing. I live in the first world and have enough to eat, a house that I’m working on owning, and a family that isn’t dead from disease or war. I’ve had enough medicine to treat my diseases, a hospital to tend to me during childbirth, an infrastructure that’s invested in making sure my child learns things, and all sorts of stuff that money can buy (books, a car, pretty clothing, complicated telephones). This is my biggest and best caveat for what I have to say in this blog. Don’t think for a moment that I don’t appreciate what I have!
That being said, I must admit that my childhood is probably responsible for my perspective on making plans for the future. Growing up, my family moved every few years, and this constant, restless motion kind of curtailed my ability to think farther than two or three years down the road.
One summer I was parked at my grandmother’s house in upstate New York while my parents were trying to figure out whether or not to get divorced. I believe I was in fourth grade, about to go into fifth.
“Can I join the school choir?” I asked Grandma Stone hopefully.
“No, because you’ll probably be back in Hawaii soon.”
My parents stayed together for a year or two after that, but on different islands.
“Can I have a cat?” I asked my dad.
“No, because I’m not sure we’ll still be on this island next year,” my dad replied.
We spent a lot of time living in limbo because the future was uncertain, and my parents did the very best that they could with this uncertainty.
The more I live, the more I comprehend how realistic it is to live in this kind of limbo, and how smart it was for my parents to curtail any kind of investment in thinking about the future, by pointing out that we had no idea what would happen the very next year.
Does anyone, really?
That’s why, when I hear about people making one, three, and five-year plans for the future, I feel astounded. How do they know that a tsunami won’t roll in and flatten their town, or that their field of work won’t suffer a sudden, astronomical decline (like, what if you’re one of the guys that wrangles mules for the mule-pulled riverboats, and steamboats just got invented?), or that they’ll get hit with a disease?
When I got to college, I realized that the people around me were planning for their futures by going into medicine or law or journalism, while I decided to dive straight into what I enjoyed the most. After all — I could die, or maybe the earth could be flattened by a stray chunk of meteor, or the university could come crashing down around us. Why not study what I loved?
One of my majors was English, the other was something I invented myself — Jungian studies, basically. I studied the very useless field of psychology and myth, happily playing around with the idea that psychology invents itself perfect stories called “religion” to help humans feel more at peace with the catastrophic nature of all the unknowns in the world.
While pursuing this topic, I found the best possible religion for myself — Taoism. I bought myself a pocket-sized edition of Stephen Mitchell’s Tao one day, and I’ve carried the poor battered thing around me ever since. (Wait, I lied. I gave away the first one that I owned to someone that I thought would resonate with it, and bought myself a new one.)
The Tao fit into my mind and heart well, because it bowed immediately to the mutability of all existence. It did the opposite of requiring a plan — in fact, it advocated for giving up on all plans, because they’re all futile in the face of so much ungovernable reality:
If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.
I don’t have a plan, and I don’t think I’ll ever have a plan. Plans get in the way of adapting to reality. When I get to the end of life and look back and scratch my head at how utterly random my life has been, I think I’ll shrug my shoulders and laugh like a Chinese master. I didn’t live life so much as let life live me.
The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.
Nothing is impossible for him.
Because he has let go.
Today’s prompt feels kind of roughly written and dubious in emotional resolution, but that’s life.