Years ago when I was a graduate student, I worked in Silver Spring, Maryland for a small, ecumenical publisher of liturgical resources. We shared office space with a small, non-profit organization led by a serious but likable young woman. She was methodical in both her professional and personal lives. She told me that every January 1 she would “celebrate” the New Year by evaluating her one-year goals and refining her three and five-year goals.
She asked me once what I was planning for the New Year. I told her I hadn’t bought a new calendar yet but was seriously thinking about it.
The question of planning has haunted me ever since. Like this woman, many people believe that we need goals and a strategic plan to achieve those goals. It has to be structured and practical enough so that we don’t drift with the current. Nobody wants to drift. The bohemian life is cute at twenty but pathological at fifty. After all, one must be responsible.
Some take this responsibility so seriously that they suffer panic attacks if their preschooler doesn’t get into the right preschool. They move mountains to ensure this happens, never questioning the concept of “preschool” in the first place. I am reminded of a department chair who derided a candidate for a Buddhist Studies position, because the candidate had gone to the wrong school. Never mind that the chair was teaching in a field completely different from her own graduate training. Power sets the rules.
On the other hand, Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian, compared Christian revelation to a brick crashing through the window of your salon (or department meeting). It is not only unexpected but terrifying. Nothing is the same afterward, and we cannot control the truth no matter how many goals we set. This leads me to think that our focus ought to be not on going to the right school for the right degree for the right job, etc. but on the individual as a goal setter. That is, on the character of the person setting the goal rather than the goal itself.
If true, then does it matter what our goals are or even when we identify them? There are objective limits, to be sure. The Yankees are not going to pick me up as a relief pitcher for the postseason. You might rethink going to law school at sixty-five. But within those limits, it may not matter which goals we set for ourselves as long as they reflect true character and individual virtue. That’s assuming, of course, that you believe in those things. If you’re ideologically consumed, as many are today, you may not.
What really mattered for the young woman in my office was not her career plan but that she was the kind of person responsible enough to think through who and what she was. How that actually worked out over the years is anybody’s guess, but that is what makes life exciting. It is driven by imagination.
Consider Miroslav Holub’s poem, “Brief Thoughts on Maps” (1977):
The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit out onto the icy wasteland. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days and the unit did not return. The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched his own people to death. But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are. The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps but of the Pyrenees.