“PLAN: To bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result”
–Devils Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
The plan was to be a therapist. I went to school, took the test, and set out to heal the world, trying to heal myself along the way. I kept my eyes on the map while I calculating my route, stowing away training rations and techniques in the trunk. And then the plan changed. I moved back to Scottsdale, and then to California. New plan, new route, new necessary luggage. I was a personal assistant and followed the map I was dictated. And then, I was no longer an assistant. New plan: Find a job, any job where actual money could be earned. My plan kept my head above water, but treading water isn’t exactly inspirational. I needed a new plan, complete with new dreams.
Planning comes easy for me. I make plans for cleaning, for meeting friends, for future vacations and imaginary houses stuffed with books. I have lists of what to read, movies to rent, cards to send. There are the plans we inherit, the visions of our parents that get absorbed and incorporated. And with every to-do list, with every set of goals, with every plan, there’s the anticipated finish line. We plan in order to get our bearings, to climb the mountain, to discover happiness.
Looking back over the past two decades, I have to admit that most of my plans evaporated or were interrupted by, say, a volcano. I like making lists and itemizing actions. I like the idea of a plan. But at some point, my plan starts to become my master, blinding me to flowery trails and landmarks along the way, leaving me bleary eyed after too much highway driving. I become tied to the plan, tossing out flexibility and spontaneity, in an effort to stay safe and focused. Sticking to the plan becomes the priority regardless of if it has merit.
Inevitably, there’s a crisis: a sharp u-turn, and I end up lost on a dirt path. It feels like my world has come crashing down, that I'm being forced to abandon my route along with the person I wanted to be. At age five, I planned to be a librarian. At age 12, a poet. At age 20, a therapist. I planned to ‘have it all together’, to ‘be normal’, to succeed, to be a grown-up, to find a spouse. I imagined a backyard with a tree house, to travel to Israel, to be a camp counselor, to teach literature. Many maps, no final destinations. Instead of reviewing the data and concluding that my plans are seldom a roadmap to anywhere other than disappointment and heartache, I hunker down to develop a new plan, a better plan.
There’s that line: “We plan and God laughs”. I always wonder what the alternative is. Should I run my life willy-nilly, stopping at every shiny object that catches my eye? Maybe I just need more plans. In a world that feels chaotic and a brain that swirls faster than I can decode, planning is the way I impose structure. It offers the illusion of organization, allowing me to believe that I am my own deity. I have a low tolerance for uncertainty, preferring to believe in a formulaic existence: if I do A , then B will occur. Even if I hate B, even if I secretly wish that A wouldn’t lead to B, I appreciate the equation. So I try to make my life fit into the formula. If I can only graduate, find the job, make a friend, publish my writing, then I'm ok, I'm good enough, I'm safe, I have value. If I can avoid failure, avoid being crabby, avoid anger and tears, avoid falling down, then I have earned the right to take up space.
And then I hear God laughing. I hear the laughter when the glass cracks and milk is now covering my floor. I hear the laughter when I trudge through the rain with my puppy, not having allotted for mud and puddles and the smell of wet dog to permeate my apartment. There’s laughter as I find more joy in writing than working as a therapist. I hear the laughter when the friend drops by and I shove my plans under the couch in favor of connection and relationships.
The truth is that I should be happy my plans have disintegrated. I should be grateful for the detours because I plan small. I don’t always know what is best for me, what would bring me happiness, what would be fulfilling. I plan for what I think I want, and forget to notice all of the other options. Perhaps I would be perfectly content living the life that I had planned for myself, content with a smooth ride along straight roads. Maybe.
But today I chuckle along with God’s laughter. I remind myself that the silver lining is there even if it takes years to see. I recall the gifts of the roadblocks, the friends made and stories to share. I consider failed plans to be my teachers, the lessons teaching me to dream bigger, to try new trails, to explore the fields within. I try to practice appreciating the changes, try to see the opportunity in locked doors rather than just the hallway I might be stuck in. I try…that doesn’t mean I always succeed. Sometimes I wish for a freshly paved road and a life made up of typical travels. I miss my plan, trying so hard to figure out how to force the old plan to fit into the new circumstances.
But then there are days like today. Days where I wake up with the daily to-do list, planning only as far ahead as tomorrow, and I'm greeted with good news, with the offer to give me a ride one stop closer to my dream. I didn’t plan to lose my job in January and I didn’t plan to be unemployed in May. I didn’t plan to be a writer because it was too far across the ocean. And yet, for today, I ended up exactly where I didn’t know I wished to be. I laugh because somehow, amidst the road construction and closed exits, I discover that the best gifts in my life are always the ones I didn’t know to ask for.
So I’ll still make my plans and do the next right thing. I’ll pretend I'm in control by imposing structure and goal posts, plans with backup plans. But when the street dead-ends and I hear the laughter again, I hope I remember to get out of the car and explore. I hope I remember that the laughter usually means there’s an unexpected blessing up ahead, as long as I stop gripping the old map. I hope I remember to laugh.