“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans,” wrote Allen Saunders in 1957. It first appeared in a Saunders’ Readers Digest article, and later co-opted by John Lennon in his song “Beautiful Boy.”
Most of us can identify with this pithy observation. Especially those of us who have lived long lives and seen how often our plans took odd or unexpected turns. Sometimes for the better. Occasionally in unforeseen or even challenging ways.
Humans are the only animals who make truly long-range plans. Our fellow mammals, through survival instinct, move from place to place in concert with their need for food or a more survivable climate. That same instinct causes them to gravitate toward the safety of herds with inclinations to mate to perpetuate their species.
“Other plans” are not part of their DNA. Why is that the case with humans? One answer, of course, is associated with our active intelligence and imagination. Some would say it is also connected with the free will God has given us to discern and decide on our own. Others believe our lives “happen” because God means it to be that way, even to the point of predestination.
Predestination is mentioned in the Christian Bible and has been debated for centuries by theologians interested in God’s will for us, sometimes referred to as “determinism.” Suggesting we can be born evil and live out our lives that way. Or be born with minds that help us perform in remarkable ways, such as Mozart’s ability to compose beautiful music. Or sports figures who excel in ways that put them in a class of their own.
Science has moved the matter into the realm of mystery. Our brains can be wired differently, which makes us diverse in dozens of ways. Some are considered abnormal by those in society who share more prevalent characteristics and behaviors. As this is being written, politicians and those supporting them strongly advocate methods to stop educational discussions of human diversity. Especially on topics related to sexual preferences and self-awareness issues associated with gender. Some political groups loop-in their biases concerning race and cultural distinctions.
Life outside what many consider the norm is more complicated than accepting and living mainstream beliefs and actions. People born with what can be considered aberrations are thought by some to be predestined by God to be that way. Some such aberrations are sinister. Others range from quirkiness to traits greatly admired because they are useful in certain circumstances. Especially if their talents are recognized early in life and honed almost to perfection. Name any field of endeavor, and we can identify those people considered famous because of it.
But even those known as exceptional have their own waystations. Places or eras in which they contemplate their life’s purposes. Decide to back off or move forward. Or move in a totally different direction. Realizing that what seemed to be a predestined way of life needed a radical adjustment.
Sometimes the waystation appeared on the horizon because of a dramatic shift in personal circumstances, such as physical or mental impairment. Or a major disturbance in a previously accepted routine or relationship. Divorce, ill health, death, financial reversals.
A standard phrase that best defines “waystation” is a “time to stop and take stock.” A phrase coming out of Middle English that means to leave the daily routine and review options. To consider where we are and have been, and the possibility going forward of doing something much different.
“Taking stock” was a favorite phrase of my father’s. I inherited that tendency. Ours was a lower middle-class family within a society acceptant of diverse religious and racial characteristics. We valued education and the idea that planning could result in changing my future destiny. And it did.
Planning was not a linear thing. Nor was it complicated by feelings of cultural, racial, physical, intellectual, familial, or gender exceptionality. My family was working class poor, but so were most of the other families in our block and city. I was mostly an ordinary guy with a supportive mother, father, and younger brother. I evolved through all the predictable stages of development. Created in myself a belief system that combined reverence for “nature’s God” and religious highpoints provided through my Episcopal church and local YMCA.
But starting in my late teens, I externally imposed waystations. A set of aspirations. Those that extended beyond self-improvement for the sake of becoming a better kind of person. My aspirations were in the realm of leadership that meant being “more.”
One of author Ralph Keyes better known books was Is There Life After High School?. Keyes discusses topics such as risk-taking, time pressure, loneliness, honesty, and other topics associated with our preparation for life. Most had to do with the anxiety of growing up.
Because of social media and other changes in today’s culture, his writings are even more relevant today than they were over 40 years ago.
American secondary schools are not really waystations. Their academic curriculum is outweighed by social dynamics. Much the same can be said about some post-secondary colleges and universities. Courses are taken and tests passed. Sports programs and activities are included for some students. Post-secondary internships are completed for those seeking professional certification.
But school is not life. It is not even a facsimile of life unless exceptional teachers dynamically engage their students in stimulating and inspiring ways. The waystation phenomenon usually follows formal education when individual choices such as marriage, career, and lifestyle become relevant. But unpredictable, nonetheless. Becoming “more” depends on who we marry or choose as an intimate partner, what we do to make a living, and how we fill uncommitted time.
Saunders’ “making other plans” recognizes the importance of risk-taking, but it is not well defined. Those who view serious risk-taking as a logical waystation accept the possibility of failure as both a possibility and learning opportunity. To learn from both failure and success and make ongoing adjustments accordingly.
Those who seek “more” for themselves and others become ready for the inevitability of a next waystation, without worrying unduly about its events or outcomes.
I am retired and my first wife required years of caregiving. She died not long ago. Both events were waystations and I decided to later use them to add more to my life personally by remarrying. And to provide service. Both with another kind of waystation. So, I take advantage of relationships and organizations with aspirations similar to mine: AARP, church, and other service groups. I also write to support my nonprofit Curriculum Leadership Institute and the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
And to keep myself engaged with life.
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