Sunday, February 9, 2014

Plans: A Sunday Rumination

Mentsch tracht und Gott lach (Man plans and God laughs) -- Yiddish proverb

Man, being, in Loren Lomasky's phrase, a project pursuer who conceives of goals and formulates plans by which to attain them, is ever conscious of the passage of time. Time is the least tractable of all the elements of a plan, for we cannot control the rate at which it passes. Many plans depend completely upon the achievement of specific steps at specific times; should one or more of those steps "miss its deadline," or perhaps be taken out of order, the plan will fail...perhaps disastrously.

Analogizing against human planning gives rise to fatally incorrect interpretations of God's Plan. Indeed, the eternal contest over free will versus predestination founders on that rock. As I wrote in Shadow Of A Sword:

    “What makes it [the concept of a Divine Plan] hard for most people,” Ray said, “is that we tend to think of God as just a very powerful temporal entity, like some sort of super-magician. But He’s not. He created time. He looks down on it from above, the way you or I would read a map. He knows the path we follow because He knows all the paths we might follow, and what might flow from every one of them.” He sat back and reflected for a moment. “So our time-dependent language about ‘choosing’ and ‘knowing’ gets us into trouble when we try to apply it to God.”

It's Man who aims, plans, chooses, and acts; God's Plan is of an entirely different order: an order it would be the ultimate arrogance for any mortal to claim to comprehend. Hopefully He laughs at it, but He might not.

Here in America, the young tend to do less planning than their elders. Young adults have maximum flexibility of direction and action. They're less committed to any particular course than those of us who've been some decades on the adventure of life. Because ours is a rich society, they also tend to have less worry about making mistakes; our resources, and the often tested but seldom lacking love of parents for their children, cushions them against many a wrong turning.

Older Americans plan incessantly. This is particularly the case for those of us peering ahead to retirement. The necessity itself can make one very nervous, for even a well-heeled oldster has no way to control most of the conditions that would bear upon his plan: the ever-changing state of his health, the value of the dollar, the state of the economy, the needs of those he loves, the rapacity of the State, and other aspects of existence beyond enumeration. None of these can be guaranteed to be or remain favorable; some are guaranteed to deteriorate despite any and all efforts to preserve them.

"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." Thus says Ecclesiastes. And indeed, it is so. Which, combined with the above observations, renders foolish at best, condemnable at worst, any statement to the effect that this or that stroke of fortune or misfortune, whether inflicted upon oneself or upon others, was "part of God's Plan."

Conventional answers to questions about "why we're here" notwithstanding, it is nevertheless observable that:

  1. Each of us must attend to his own needs as a first priority;
  2. We can accomplish a great deal of good by the judicious exercise of charity.

Point 1 proceeds directly from the nature of the human organism. A man who doesn't see to his own necessities first and foremost seldom lives very long. Moreover, the wasted are seldom in a position to help anyone. (The dead, still less often.) Survival and an adequate provision for the foreseeable future therefore come first.

Yet point 2 is equally a matter of human nature, for as individuals, we are limited, fallible, and vulnerable. No one gets very far with nothing but his own body and mind; everything else we might ever bring to bear upon the execution of a plan requires the cooperation or collaboration of others, whether direct or indirect. Vanishingly few among us can say that they've never needed anyone's help for anything -- and most of us, at some point in our lives, will have a need for help we don't deserve and cannot repay.

We plan...but we don't plan in isolation from one another. The true "lone wolf" is the rarest of all human beings; such isolates tend to wither and die. Robinson Crusoe, had he not had the well-stocked wreck of his ship to plunder for resources, would not have flourished in his solitude...and the goods of which he availed himself were not his by original acquisition.

To the extent that the Divine Plan addresses Man and his societies, perhaps that mandatory involvement with one another is at the heart of it.

Americans' charitable inclinations are among the things that mark us as the finest people on Earth. Yet in these days of steadily increasing interpersonal separations, those impulses can lead us astray rather easily. In particular, we tend to give through large, institutional charities, and we tend to give money. Both these avenues for the exercise of charity should be avoided in the great majority of cases, for they conduce to the institutionalization of an activity that's properly practiced at close range. Division of labor isn't the best approach to everything.

But because of our habit of planning, the exploitation of those institutions and the cash nexus that lubricates commerce is difficult to resist. It makes it possible to conserve time for other things while simultaneously allowing ourselves to satisfy that desire, often rising near to a compulsion, to give. And time, as I observed earlier, is the least tractable of all the components of our plans; we can neither manufacture it nor bottle it for later consumption.

Though we are project pursuers who plan as naturally as we breathe, nevertheless not everything can or should be planned. Significant realms of life, most emphatically including how we interact with those around us, should be left unplanned. That way, we enjoy and / or assist one another spontaneously, albeit rationally, properly, and judiciously. We know and help one another as individuals, a far more intimate relation than formal mechanisms and institutional intermediaries can provide.

It's one of my great regrets that only now, in my seventh decade, am I coming to terms with how far from that counsel my own life has strayed. But as I've said before, these Ruminations are mostly a way to talk to myself without attracting the attention of men in white coats with butterfly nets.

May God bless and keep you all.


YIH said...

Americans' charitable inclinations are among the things that mark us as the finest people on Earth. Yet in these days of steadily increasing interpersonal separations, those impulses can lead us astray rather easily.
This. My roommate received an inheritance last year, and being an animal lover made a donation to the ASPCA. And the nightmare began, apparently just like a scam artist the name and phone number got 'sold around' on what scamsters call a 'sucker list'. Which means for the last 18 months or so we get an average of two calls a day from one damn 'charity' or another seeking donations.
My personal favorite among these is ''Hello, I'm calling on behalf of the firefighters'' (click). Nope, no city/county/state or particular cause, just 'the firefighters'.
After a while I mentioned to my roommate ''You thoroughly convinced me, I am NOT donating to any damn charity''. The only exception I make is some cash in the Salvation Army kettle.

Differ said...

God bless you, Fran, you write the stuff of inspiration....

KG said...

May God bless you too, Mr. Porretto, for these ruminations.
I suspect they're valued by more people - and far more - than you realise.

pdwalker said...

I do look forward to these Sunday ruminations.