One of the greatest human illusions is that with enough planning and effort one can determine one’s future. Yet when people honestly look at what defines their lives—whom they married, what house they live in, what job they work at--it becomes apparent that most of it occurred serendipitously, not through precise planning. What lies around the bend or over the horizon is impossible to know. We cannot see it and we cannot predict it!
No one has ever been very good at predicting the future. When one looks at time capsules left 100 years ago, the predictions that were made were wildly off base. I remember as a kid thinking that by the time I was a grown-up, everyone would have a helicopter in his driveway to avoid traffic congestion—not too sound a forecast as it turns out, and certainly not something that comes close to what is today’s reality.
No one predicted the computer and the revolution it has wrought in our lives. Yet today it is routine for people to walk around with computers the size of their hand that are not attached to anything but can access a universe of information on the internet, can send messages instantly to others, and can take pictures and also immediately send them to friends.
No one predicted the unending wars that have taken place over the last 90 years. In 1919 people thought that the end of World War I marked “the war to end all wars” because the trench warfare that characterized that war was so terrible that nothing worse could follow.
No one foresaw the breakdown of morality, of the family, and of social mores that so defined past generations. In the past 50 years, the changes that have transpired in our society in these areas are beyond belief.
Just two years ago how many people knew enough to take their hard earned savings out of the stock market to avoid losing half their money? Many pundits were writing about too much national debt, but who was prescient enough to see the collapse of the world financial markets?
Planning for the future is almost as difficult as predicting it. Problems with one’s own health or one’s partner’s health, or the loss of a job or of investments, have a way of intervening in one’s life’s plans to lead to a reality far different than anticipated.
Go back five years in time and imagine yourself to be living exactly as you were then. Then jump to the present and take an honest look at what is now transpiring in your life. How much of the new reality is what you had anticipated? When I do this exercise, I am astounded at how different my life is today compared to what I thought it would be. Some activities that used to be very important to me no longer have appeal. People whom I did not know have married into my family. People have been born and people have unexpectedly died. My attention has turned toward new interests and new friends, neither of which existed in my life then.
There is, of course, a certain amount of practical planning that is appropriate in helping one reach future goals. That is why one invests years in obtaining a higher education or why one saves money. But beyond these broad strokes, the specifics of future planning remain too uncertain to be made too precisely. Like a good sailor or pilot, it is important to have a navigation or flight plan to arrive safely at your destination. But as any sailor or pilot will tell you, be prepared for the unexpected because it is likely to occur.
Part of what defines our lives is the uncertainty that unfolds as time passes—it is in fact what makes for the awe and wonder that partly defines the human condition. Since we do not know exactly where we are headed, perhaps it is best simply to relax and enjoy the ride.