In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
“To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
A friend left me a characteristically long-winded message. It was, “Hey Jason, it’s G. I’m really happy your message says that I have reached your voicemail, because otherwise I wouldn’t know that…Phew, if only life was that simple. So, what about this idea: Let’s just say I’m 37, right? Which is about what your age is. And let’s just say we focus on a 13-year plan—it’s a long time—we can get a lot accomplished in 13 years—with the goal of retiring at 50, which is totally reasonable. But most people start planning that, like, when they’re 20, so we’re a little behind, but that’s OK. So, what can I do for the next 13 years with focus and attention, with the understanding that it’s worth kind of working at, because, you know, it will accomplish something? Because what I’m doing now is just kind of bopping around without a long-term plan. Also, we’re going to the spa this week. If you guys want to come that’d be great.”
I’ve listened to this message probably a dozen times, because there are a number of implicit questions in it (and because it’s funny—the suggestion of working hard toward a long-term goal followed by an invitation to the spa is at least a little comedic). For one, is 13 years truly a long time? At 37 I’ve almost completed three 13-year stints, each one shorter than the next. Time, as the “uniquely subjective phenomenon,” is not experienced at a constant pace. The years speed by at an ever-accelerating rate.
And then there’s the question of destiny. Are the stories of our lives already written in a book of time while we are left to helplessly fulfill a preset plot? And of course there’s the question of the larger world, and the unforeseen changes in economic, political, and social conditions. For instance, how many people who happened to live in Iraq had their personal plans laid to waste by the US invasion?
These questions have always prevented me from making long-term plans, along with the conviction that the best approach to fulfilling possible futures is the discipline of keeping the attention rooted in the moment, with faith that the next step will become apparent if I am present here and now.
That said, there are capacities, the development of which may actually constitute long-term goals, albeit inwardly, that more fully realize a person’s presence in the moment, and the corresponding ability to best realize outer-life goals. Capacities like: strength of attention; the ability to respond fully and authentically to what arises; exercising the value of being of service in the moment; and conscience.
For example, the other evening, after a lengthy, multicourse Passover Seder, replete with all four glasses of wine, I was asked to help bring an aged relative back to her nursing home. She has late-stage MS and is almost completely unable to move with her own volition. As we wheeled her down some steps on the way out to the car, the wheelchair hit the ground abruptly. She cried out in pain, uttering almost the first sound of the evening. The sound woke something up in me. I heard the human being inside her inert, useless body.
On the way to the home she vomited the bulk of the meal onto her shirt and the car seat. The smell of vomit filled the car, and when we arrived it was time to bring her in to her room to get cleaned up and go to bed. This meant that someone needed to lift her vomit-soaked body out of the car and into the wheelchair. As though by grace I found myself taking off my outer layer of finer clothes, and bending to pick her up.
“I’m so sorry…” She whispered. I looked into her eyes, which were filled with sadness. “Don’t worry,” I said. “It is wonderful to see you.” And I hugged her to my body, lifted her out of the car, and as gently as I could, placed her in her wheelchair.
Earlier that day I had taken my children, after much insistence on their part, for a ride on a gargantuan Ferris wheel overlooking Niagara Falls. Though pleasant, I count helping a puke-soaked old lady out of the car as the realer, and even preferable of the two experiences. It was a few moments of Real Life, responding to a present need and helping another human being in the moment.
So where is the balance between plans for the future and presence in the moment? Clearly both are vital. Since I am out of space, I leave the question to you, reader, should you wish to take it up.