April 29, 2020
In 1785 the poet Robert Burns was plowing his field in rural Scotland when he accidentally stirred up a mouse’s nest. With her lodging destroyed, and plans for winter dashed to pieces, the mouse disappeared into a sea of churned earth.
Sensing a deeper metaphor for life, as artists tend to do, Burns decided to write a poem about the experience, apparently, while still leaning on his plough.
Feeling terrible about having destroyed the mouse’s hard work, Burns writes, “Your small house, too, in ruin! / Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!” His sympathy quickly turning to empathy, Burns commiserates, “In proving foresight may be vain: / The best-laid schemes of mice and men / Go often askew.”
The well-known idiom that warns against the inconsistency of foresight, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” is derived from Burns’ poem; as well as the title of John Steinbeck’s classic novella, Of Mice and Men, about two ill-fated, California ranch hands named Lenny and George.
So what do Burns, his mouse, and Steinbeck’s unlucky duo have in common? They all learned, some the very hardest way, that our anticipation of an event has no affect on its probability: Plans fail, disaster strikes, mistakes happen, and things fall apart—simply because that’s what things do.
The cloudless skies of Southeast Asia are behind me—the overcast ones of the Pacific Northwest loom above. Pushing a lawn mower around my aunt’s property on Bainbridge Island, Thailand feels like another lifetime, and I am reminded of Burns’ poem.
As I cut my narrow track, back and forth through a sea of green, I struggle to connect my past ambitions with my present reality: How can the life I am living be so different from the one I imagined—and yet I’m still perfectly happy?
With such an anticlimactic and hasty return to the U.S., part of me expects to feel dismayed, but I’m truly not upset—just mourning the loss of my once excellent tan.
I heard someone say recently that nothing bad ever happens to a writer. And I suppose that’s true. “We write to heighten our own awareness of life,” Anaïs Nin—wrote. “We write to lure and enchant and console others. We write to serenade our lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.”
Our story is our story. And the only knowable events, good and bad, are found on the pages that’ve already been written. They’re in the past. The next page, the next sentence, the next word in the story of our lives is a total mystery.
Sure, before COVID-19 caught us all with our proverbial pants down, I had plans too. And, like most would, I hoped for the best. But as prophetic boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Most days, there are just too many punches coming to track and (preferably) dodge. Accepting that some of these hits will land, though—often right in our faces—readies us for the unpleasant and unexpected. Mental preparation renders the detailed plans we make to comfort and futilely protect ourselves unnecessary.
Feeling safe does not mean you are safe. “The summer’s calm is upset by storms more severe than those of winter,” Seneca wrote. “In the absence of any enemy we suffer all that an enemy might wreak on us.”
The fight many believe they’re still preparing for, the fight for their lives, started long before the era of social distancing. There was no signal when it began, and there won’t be a bell when it ends; so it probably doesn’t seem like it this second—but the fight is on.
“Misfortune has a way of choosing some unprecedented means or other of impressing its power on those who might be said to have forgotten it,” Seneca wrote. Tragedy uncovers our buried weaknesses, but humility allows us to accept them.
We are not fortune tellers. And that crystal ball will only reflect back the fearful face starring into it. Behind the curtain, that’s no wizard, it’s just a man; and this sure ain’t Hogwarts School of—whatever.
Attempting to predict what lies ahead, we whisk events prematurely into the past: Conceptualizing every possible scenario inflates our expectations, and we find ourselves regretting a future that has yet to even occur.
“Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future,” Seneca wrote. Thus, only those who have the luxury and audacity to live in the present moment experience anything like magic.
Even when I say I’ll be staying in Washington for a few more weeks—I have no idea if that’s true. Honestly, I haven’t given much thought past the likely events of today: Getting some fresh air, maybe some sun, enjoying my coffee, a bit of manual labor, and working my way through Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—arguably the greatest novel ever written.
For me, that’s far enough. Anything past my second cup of coffee just feels greedy. “Do not fear the lack of knowledge,” Tolstoy wrote in Thoughts of Wise Men (1904), “but truly fear unnecessary knowledge which is acquired only to please vanity.”
Not caring about one’s future is different than not caring about not knowing about one’s future. (Or something like that.) It’s not that I’m being indifferent, apathetic, or even pessimistic—no, it’s something else—“not an outright nihilist, but, you know, eats with his knife,” as Anna Arkádyevna Karénina might say.
It’s something like the brief amnesia one experiences upon waking amidst a terrible situation: You’ve lost your job, your lover has left, someone has died. You open your eyes and, for a few seconds, before all your regrets and fears come flooding back, you’re at peace. Then you realize you’re still you—and the contrast turns your stomach.
But for those few blissful seconds—when you’re aware of unsettling events but not bothered by them, before the whiplash rattles your teeth—life feels light and wonderfully mysterious.
When it feels like this, what could’ve been and what is are indistinguishable. Cutting the lawn and thinking about poetry is the same as writing poems while thinking about the grass. The past can’t touch me and the future doesn’t concern me. There is only this moment, this mower, this sentence, this sip of coffee—and then the next.