Yiddish: Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.
English: Man plans, God laughs.
On Christmas day, I left for Florida to hang out with my family for a week. It’s something I’ve done for the past 20 years. My dad and stepmom’s side of the family congregates at a place called Longboat Key on the mid-western gulf coast. Days are typically spent hanging by the pool, eating, going to the beach, eating, playing with my cousins’ kids and eating some more.
The hub of activity is a couple vacation condominiums my aunt and uncle own. My dad usually books me a condo in the same complex. This year was no different except that my girlfriend was joining me.
The condos in the complex are all bright and sunny duplexes, filled with tacky overstuffed floral print couches. There are vases filled with plastic flowers for ambience. It’s upper-middle-class vacation property chic—not decor you’d live with all year, but clean and comfortable for a week.
We picked up the keys for our unit, 580CW, the night we arrived. My aunt and uncle offered to drop us off at the unit. We wended through the parking lots, but 580CW was nowhere to be found. Finally, I got out a map that the management included with the keys. Written in a Sharpie pen was the outline of 580CW. It was not in the main complex, but on the road directly outside of it, Companion Way (CW). Strange, but not immediately alarming.
We drove out of the complex onto Companion Way and after a couple passes found the unit. It was a converted trailer. Strange, but no biggie. I’ve lived in trailer parks before. They can be nice. Really.
We entered the linoleum-floored trailer and were immediately assaulted by the smell of cleaning solvent and damp, cigarette-permeated upholstery. This was disconcerting at first, but our alarm was mitigated by fatigue. We had been traveling all day and the preceding days were spent making sure everything was cool before we left. We were too tired to complain and after all we were there because of my father’s generosity. I felt it a bit ungracious to refuse free accommodations.
We got into the bedroom and plopped down on the bed. To call the bed a pillow-top mattress is like calling Mt. Everest a speed-bump. It had a foot or so of cushion, presumably covering springs deep below the surface. Sleeping on our sides put our bodies into a V-shape where our hips sunk into the mattress and legs and torso projected upward. The same thing happened lying on our backs or stomachs—our pelvises sank while our heads and feet were sent vertical. The bed’s comfort made moving to the cold linoleum floor seemed like a viable option.
These physical contortions were exacerbated by sheets that smelled like an ashtray doused with a Glade air-freshener.
We barely slept a wink that night.
I’d been anticipating this vacation for a while, planning it all out. My girlfriend and I taking long walks on the beach, hanging with my family, playing with my cousin’s adorable kids, lounging about reading and watching movies. We would sleep late and eat plenty. We would come back relaxed and refreshed, ready to take on our lives.
Instead, the first night set the tone for the event. Though we moved the next morning into one of my aunt and uncle’s smoke-free condos, we never quite hit a sleeping stride and were in a haze of sleep deprivation for much of the trip. There was a cold-spell in Florida and the beaches and pool were frigid and windswept until the last couple days of the trip. My cousin and her kids were delayed 4 days because of an east-coast blizzard. When the weather cleared and the kids arrived, I felt a bit stressed by the imperative to cram 7 days of sun-frolicking into 3. I arrived home ready for a vacation.
My plans, as plans are wont to do, were thwarted.
The new year is a time when most people make plans. We call them resolutions. They are our little plans for happiness. Implicit in a resolution is the idea that if I _____ (don’t snack, work out at least 3 days a week, work more, work less, whatever), I will be happy.
It’s the same logic I used on vacation: if the right weather, the right company, the right mattress, the right whatever occur, I will be happy and relaxed. But what happens when these things don’t occur? What happens when the weather sucks or the cute kids get stuck in airports (or grow up and stop being cute)? What happens when we pig out on peanut-filled pretzels or fail to work out? What happens when we fail to realize our plans?
It seems clear to me that attaching our happiness to the realization of plans is a recipe for disappointment. Even when our plans work out, we usually find ourselves momentarily pleased until we think of new plans, thereby setting up the plan-trap again. This is like playing poker with our happiness. Eventually we will get a bad hand and we will be disappointed by unrealized plans.
So instead of giving advice about how to better realize your plans and resolutions this year, I thought it’d be more useful to give tips about how to deal with unrealized plans and thwarted resolutions.
- “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” This is an Eisenhower quote that I interpret to mean that there is value in planning, but that all plans lose their importance once set in motion. This is similar to another military quote, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” We can make a plan, we can set an objective, but as soon as it’s set in motion, we need to deal with current circumstances, adjusting and keeping open as necessary.
- Be more “processive.” The world seems hellbent on being more “productive,” whereby we produce more stuff and create very specific results. The person who makes the most or manipulates his conditions the best considers himself the most productive, even when he might be totally miserable in pursuit of these things. In my case, the product was having a great vacation, which meant something specific—warmth, playing on beach, kids, food. In my mind, if those things had come together, I would have felt like I had a productive vacation. But they didn’t and the vacation didn’t go my way. The problem is that I cared more about the products than what those products represented—i.e. processes. The product of walking on the beach represented the process of being relaxed. The product of playing with the kids represented the process of being joyous. The product of spending time with family represented the process of feeling connected. The productive person will pursue or cling to the product at the expense of the process that the product represents. The processive person sees it the other way, valuing the process over product. In my case, I could have focused principally on the processes of relaxation, being playful, joyous and experiencing other desired states, based not on past representational products like walking on the beach and getting tan, but on current conditions. Maybe I could have made snowmen on the beach or something.
- Make new year’s intentions, not resolutions. I’m not a great planner. I have little to no will power and I’m not terribly disciplined. For me, resolutions are appetizers for disappointment. For years I tried to carry out resolutions—things like no eating refined wheat. I’d do “good” for a few weeks, then slip. I’d get back on the horse, but then it’d happen again. By February I was drowning my shame in baguettes. Nowadays, I set intentions. You can’t fail to keep an intention. For example, this year my intention is to see things as they are. This means that I intend to let go of ideas and stories and any form of delusion that compromises my ability to see things exactly as they are without judgment. Will I do this all the time? Of course not. But I can always reboot and set the intention again. I can always ask, “Am I seeing things as they are or am I making up a story about it?” In the same way, if your intention is to live with vitality, you can ask yourself, “Does the way I’m treating my body accord with vitality?”
We live in a world possessed by the notion that if we get our way, if we just plan well enough, if we just make the right move, if we just eat the right food or cultivate the right relationships or sculpt the perfect body, everything will be cool. These products will make us happy. Few talk about how to deal with disappointment and failure. About what to do when things don’t go our way. And when they do, it’s in the context of getting what we want—keep failing until you get what you want. I say, for 2011, feel free to plan, go ahead and set your intentions, but after that, let them go. Be cool with things just as they are. Forget about the products, and focus on processes. In this way, we can stop waiting for good things to happen. The year can begin now, not when our plans are realized or when we get what we want.