To Plan or Not To Plan?

I’ve recently noticed a recurring, and really weird, theme throughout my life: whenever I make specific plans, they almost never turn out the way I’d intended. In fact, they often don’t turn out in ways that even remotely resemble what I’d intended — but in most of those cases, something better comes along to replace the original plan.

Take, for example, high school and college: I’d worked out a plan with my school to finish high school early and enroll in college during what would’ve been my senior year, because I was 1) entirely too motivated and filled with Type A ambition and drive (ok, where did all that energy go?), and 2) I loved the school where my parents worked and knew that I’d be able to go there for free as a staff dependent. (They worked at Colorado College, AKA CC, a small liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, CO.)

I wrote up a proposal for my school board, got conditional acceptance into CC, and was all set to go into academic overdrive when…my dad got a new job in Pennsylvania. since I was transferring to a new school with the cross-country move and wouldn’t be able to go to CC tuition-free, my big plans went up in smoke. I was upset at the time — there was a lot of teen angst, wailing, gnashing of teeth, etc. — but it wound up working out wonderfully: I spent the next two years attending an awesome high school and making amazing friends (y’all know who you are). After having a hard time with the first two years of high school, the last two wound up totally redeeming the whole thing — and in ways that I couldn’t imagine when I was drawing up my plans to graduate early.

spongebob high school
I found myself in this exact scenario entirely too often.

There are tons of other examples like this (see: getting into college, infertility, etc.), but for now I’ll spare you the Tolstoy-length post on all the details. Suffice it to say, though, this has been very much A Thing throughout my 36 years.

By contrast, the one thing that has gone according to my plans is my career. I got into grad school, got a fellowship to come to DC, made my big transfer into my current job, and…well, look at me. Not the happiest of cowgirls, am I?

All of this has made me wonder about the utility of making long-term plans vs. simply being open to possibility. When I was younger, I thought the Soviet concept of five- and ten-year plans was genius: I mean, why wouldn’t anyone have a master plan figured out for their life? Since then, however, I’ve come to find that this was the most ludicrous approach to life I could’ve possibly taken. I chalk this up to youthful naivete, because y’all, I soooooo don’t have that much control over the trajectory of my life. (Does anyone, though?) I’ve seen people suffer enormous tragedies, bear tremendous burdens, receive extraordinary gifts, and rise to face impressive challenges — all of which were unforeseen and totally not part of their plans.

For my part, my long-term plans included having babies with my husband, and possibly running a half-marathon — but then I got cancer, became permanently infertile, and picked up a chronic pain problem. I sure as sh*t didn’t see those things coming.

More recently, at the beginning of the year, I created a set of goals for myself (goals, not resolutions!): goals that included doing lots of planks, starting to do more weight training, and working on building muscle after basically becoming the human embodiment of cake batter over the last four years.

But then I found that I had developed a hernia at one of the incision sites from my hysterectomy, so that put the kibosh on lifting and anything involving my core muscles.  (I had surgery to repair the hernia, which I named Ralph, on June 1, so I’ll be clear to start lifting heavy things on July 13.) And then on Monday I had a massive asthma flare-up that landed me in the hospital, so even my plans to start doing cardio are on hold for now, and I continue with my whole “Hi, I’m basically sentient cake batter” motif.

I’m not pleased by these developments.

But I keep reminding myself that it isn’t all bad: I occasionally see glimmers of a silver lining floating around (coming out of the infertility-grief fog with a profound desire to write about it, for example), and moments of serendipity help me remember that things have a funny way of working out sometimes.

I decided long ago that one of my theme songs for life — you know, if you could make a soundtrack to your life, what would the primary theme songs be? — is You Can’t Always Get What You Want, by the Rolling Stones. (True story: I remember hearing it as the background music for a Motorola commercial in, like, 1998 and it burst through the ambient noise with such clarity that I felt like the Universe was shaking me and saying “DUDE. PAY ATTENTION TO THIS. IT’S IMPORTANT.”) I have to keep reminding myself that this is generally a sound approach (get it? A song is a sound approach? I’ll be here all week, folks. I also do bar mitzvahs.), that this setback in terms of my health is manageable, and that just because Plan A usually hasn’t worked, Plan B can be just as good as, if not better than, what I originally had in mind.

Joseph Campbell Quote

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