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Why We Can't Plan Our Lives (and Why That's a Good Thing)

Have you ever noticed how people like to plan just about everything? I mean everything from what we’re going to do for a career to where we’re going on vacation next year; it all hinges upon our plans. Even things we know are out of our control, like the weather and sports scores, are fair game when it comes to harmonizing our will with the future. We organize our lives around plans, spend an unspeakable amount of money on them, and turn down countless other offers in their interest. Many people say planning is the road to success.

Then life happens.

No matter how much planning we do, the future is not our empty canvas. It’s full of twists and turns we cannot predict, so setting a course through it can very easily go awry. This may be cause for disappointment for some people, but I want to propose a way of looking at life that makes its unpredictability a good thing.

There’s Planning and Then There’s Planning

You've probably heard of the expression, "Failing to plan is planning to fail." You may have also heard people say, "If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans." So what’s the deal? Don’t these two expressions contradict each other? Do they simply come from different worldviews? Or are they both paradoxically true, and should we just make plans and then prepare for God to laugh at them?

Well, yes and no. There’s two different kinds of planning going on here. The former usually refers to everyday short-term plans, like a standard of procedure for a project or a vacation itinerary. This kind of short-term planning can be good. We’re not expected to walk through life completely blind. The latter expression usually is used in reference to big long-term life plans like our dream job, lifelong ambitions and where we see ourselves in ten or twenty years; you know, the serious stuff that matters most in the big picture. Planning that stuff is where the danger lies, and this is where God is telling us, “You better think again.”

That kind of begs the question, though. Why is it good to plan the littler things in life, but when we plan the bigger things we usually just end up getting humbled in some way? Because the Author of life wants us to have faith, and that means trusting him even though we don’t know what lies ahead in the distance. He reveals a few steps ahead, that’s all.

Your word is a lamp to my feet

And a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)

A lamp doesn’t disclose any more than a few feet of path in the darkness: God sets us on the right road—he puts our dreams and ambitions on our hearts—but he doesn't tell us how to get to the destination. Why not? Probably because we wouldn’t be able to understand it or bear it if he did tell us. It’s better to just trust him, to “let go and let God” take the wheel. Get busy doing the things he has shown will help get you to your destination, even if you don't see how. That's how faithfulness works. We practice, we learn good habits, believing it'll all pay off. Then one day when we’re not even paying attention to where we’re headed, we look around and we’re there!

When big life plans don’t turn out our way, sometimes we blame God for messing things up—but we’re talking about life itself here; and last time I checked, life is a pretty complex and untamable reality. Can you blame a conductor for making the notes of a symphony too difficult? Can you blame the lion tamer for making the lion too fierce? Life is a symphony; and it has the fierceness of a whole pride of lions. One can argue that God didn’t have to make life so complex and untamable; but if a symphony weren’t so complex it wouldn’t be a symphony, and a lion that is completely tame just isn’t natural. It belongs in a zoo.

That’s not the kind of life I want to lead. I want mine to be free, open-ended and full of things I don’t understand. That means being open to whatever comes my way and just rolling with it. If I can’t get the notes right, or harness my life the way I want, I’m more likely to follow the Conductor note for note, and trust that the Tamer will keep the beast from devouring me—instead of trying to come up with my own way to avoid danger.

The truth is, when you grab life by the horns it takes you for a wild ride. If you really want control of your life, you have to keep a safe distance from the action, away from the things that may derail your plans. Sometimes parents do the same thing to their kids; they’re called helicopter parents. Don’t be a helicopter parent to your life. God your Father knows what he is doing. Let life happen, let it take off and don’t be afraid of unexpected adventures.

“So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

That’s how it happened for the heroes in so many of the stories we love. They were faced with a crisis and entered into it full steam while uncertain of the outcome. If they had a firm grip on what was going to happen to them there wouldn't be much of a story.

Also, don’t forget the villains in those stories. They’re the ones who have the plan: a plan to conquer the world or destroy their heroic, virtuous archnemesis. It's the hero's job to thwart that plan, and the very intrigue of the story lies in the fact that no one—including the hero—has any idea how he's going to do it. Sure, he has an end goal to defeat the villain, but the path to achieving that goal is covered in a fog of uncertainty. The hero has to rely on things like hope, grace, faith in the good, and the power of things greater than him.

Where the Open-Ended Life Has Left Me

This all reminds me of the most impactful events in my own life. I’m far from being any kind of hero, but I can say that my life took a drastically exciting turn for the better once I stopped trying to plan everything myself, took a leap of faith and trusted God’s divine plan.

First, in college I chose to major in humanities and Catholic culture, a major that didn’t exactly guarantee a career in anything particular after graduation. I took this risk because I was intrigued by the truths I would learn by studying the humanities and Catholic culture; not because I wished to learn a trade or marketable skill and easily land a job after receiving my diploma. I wanted to learn for the sake of learning, and was actually invigorated by the uncertainty of my next step.

Turns out my lack of planning in that regard didn’t leave me high and dry. Following college, I simply continued to pursue my interests. I went after job opportunities that crossed my path and looked intriguing to me, and employers hired me based on my passion and dedication. I wound up freelance writing for a few local and diocesan newspapers, and working for a Catholic blog. The point is this: No job I’ve ever had was the result of a thorough, well-planned job search. Honestly, I don’t think I could have found work that was more up my alley if I had searched the whole world for a job on my own. God knew what he was doing. I just had to ride along.

Not only did I end up finding work that I love. The fortuitous work I was given also helped me find love. I was on a freelance assignment, just planning to get a story from a youth event when I first met her. I never expected to meet anyone my age there, let alone the girl who would change my life and say yes to marrying me. Turns out all of the dating sites and social events I signed up for with plans to find someone didn’t work out. It was the serendipitous chemistry of real life that wound up pulling through in the end.

Then, shortly after meeting her, I was offered a great job opportunity that seemed to pop out of nowhere (ironically, at another freelance assignment). Again, my life changed for the better as I started on a path I had no idea I’d be on a few weeks before starting the job. This one was especially significant because I literally wasn’t even looking for work, but I knew God was drawing me in a new direction so I followed.

"The workers in Christ’s vineyard were hired by the day; only for this day are we to ask for our daily bread, and we are expressly bidden to take no thought for the morrow.… Look heavenward, if you wish, but never to the horizon—that way danger lies. Truth is not there, happiness is not there…" —Sir William Osler

So for me at least, the unplanned events wound up being the most impactful in my life, especially over the past few years. They didn’t happen as a result of me being irresponsible. Rather, I believe they happened because I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I didn’t know why I was there or what was happening, but God did and he is the author of my life. I’m just the main character, and if the main character of a story were the one who came up with the plot, I think it would be awfully predictable and quite bland since it would be written by someone who is naturally looking out for his own interests.

We all know this isn’t the way life happens. Rather, God has a way of grabbing us by the hand and saying, “Ready or not, follow me,” just like he did with his disciples. I’m glad he works that way, because I think I’d miss out on a lot in life if I tried planning my own; and on top of that things probably wouldn’t go as I had planned anyway. They hardly ever do.

How To Achieve a Goal Without Knowing the Way

It starts with a vision of where you want to be in life, a dream. Then God takes it from there, simply asking us to be faithful. For example, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I could plan out a step-by-step roadmap to achieving my goal of getting books published and establishing a name for myself, sticking to my plan ruthlessly to demonstrate my ambition. Or I can take each day as it comes, doing the one thing necessary to become a writer: write. Each day then presents new opportunities. I'm not going to be stubborn and 'stick to the plan' if another door opens that wasn't along my path.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”― E.L. Doctorow

I would say that life is similar to writing in that way. As rational beings, we like structure. It puts our mind at ease, gives us a stronger sense of purpose. It could be good to have a wide scope on a situation and determine what course is best to reach a goal, as long as you’re open to amending those plans as circumstances suggest. If a deer jumps out of the darkness, you have to be prepared to swerve.

Let me give another example. When I covered council and planning board meetings as a journalist, the elected officials would often present 5-year plans for the town. The residents liked to see the intentions of the council and board, and to see that they had a clear vision for their community. But as the years went on, I often noticed unforeseen obstacles popping up and setting the plans off course: A recession, a storm, new council and board members with different visions, other plans that were deemed more important taking up funds, manpower and resources; townspeople and professionals presenting new proposals, protesters demanding modifications to the plans, and so on.

Then other people would ask why the town isn’t following through with the plans, and the board or council would have to explain all of these unforeseen obstacles. The plans would have to be redrawn or rewritten several times. Many may think the board or council failed to show integrity in these cases, but I learned to see their course of action as quite diligent. They learned to accommodate new developments, and compensate for setbacks, and in a general sense they persevered. If you looked at their original plans and compared them to what was actually done, you might even say they fell short big time. But if you knew the whole story, you’d know that they learned to bend gracefully with the winds of time and change.

On the other hand, many times the plans of elected officials and developers simply go against the wishes of the locals. When this happens, things don’t turn out well. The new development ends up being disconnected from the community, not efficiently cared for and just out of place.

This is similar to the danger we’re all faced with when we divorce our planning from reality. When our overly-idealistic vision clashes with real life, it often causes unnecessary conflict. It sometimes even convinces us to neglect loved ones and other priorities. Next thing we know, we start losing touch with our real-life, tangible blessings as they become replaced by the phantoms of our ungrounded expectations.

It takes great humility to admit that life is much more powerful than we are, and greater than any structure or pattern we can come up with in attempt to harness it. As the proverb says, “A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9). So sure, there is wisdom in planning ahead, but this wisdom ought to be tempered by acknowledging that, in reality, all we can do is take it one day at a time. Life is unpredictable, and that’s what makes it worth living.

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