As always, comments, suggestions, questions and criticisms are welcome as I, or we, continue writing this memoir. Ted
I’m not much of a planner, at least not the long range kind. I thought that was a serious deficiency of mine until years ago when I read David Herbert Donald’s superb biography Lincoln. In the Preface to the biography, Donald quoted Lincoln on how he approached governing during the Civil War: “The pilots on our Western rivers steer from point to point as they call it - setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see; and that is all I propose to myself in this great problem.” (1) The rest of the bio basically confirms that attitude as Lincoln’s approach to life as well as to governing.
In that way, if in no other except being tall, I’m like our 16th President. I’ve never done much long term planning or strategic planning in my life beyond the next week or two, unless it was in preparation for meeting a deadline that forced me to extend my usual planning process a bit. That has been pretty consistently my MO even in choosing a college, what graduate school to apply to, what profession I’d enter, what career moves I’d make or goal I’d work toward, what sort of woman I wanted to marry, or how large a family I would have.
When, by a zigzag route, I ended up as a minister in, the United Methodist Church, I resisted engaging in the popular Five Year Plan churches used. Instead I urged the congregation to decide on which direction to move determined by the purpose of its Christian mission in response to present “conditions on the ground” -- such conditions being the immediate needs, challenges and opportunities confronting us. I thought we might miss those by adhering to a long range plan. That was my “point to point” way of navigating.
Granted there are serious risks in that approach and some risks lead to sorry outcomes, even painful ones. I know that about my MO through personal and professional regrettable experiences. Among those regrettable consequences was getting married when both of us were too young (barely 21) and quite clueless about all that was involved in that decision, traveling across the country to Yale when relatively broke, having children too soon, our first child being born in New Haven when we were also a clueless 22, followed by three others each born roughly two years apart, my needing to work full time while attending Yale Divinity School full time, resulting in seriously curtailed study time.
Though I was awarded a graduate fellowship, the pressure finally made it impossible for me to continue study for a Ph.D. and a possible teaching career. Necessity pressed me into full-time ministry and two years later I broke down emotionally and was on the verge of suicide for weeks. I tried to hide my breakdown but David Parke, a young doctor in the congregation, picked up my symptoms and helped me find a psychiatrist. Thus began several years of tough therapy during which our marital floundering intensified and finally culminated in divorce.
Since the therapy ultimately put me together in a different way, I suppose it could be argued that my ‘point to point’ MO was justified. But was it? There’s no denying that it also inflicted painful wounds everyone, leaving in its wake many casualties, primarily our four kids whose lives were left indisputably scarred by a mismatched and misguided marriage as well as the divorce. Though I’m grateful for its ultimate outcome, I remain deeply penitent for my bumbling which was related in part to my mode of navigating.
Yet, I’m still wary of professional and/or institutional long range planning because, in my view, it tends to be inflexible, controlling, and inclined toward security rather than the more open, imaginative and innovative possibilities of “point to point” planning. At the same time, I’ve become rightly tempered by the awareness of its limitations and am more appreciative of
longer term planning and and receptive to the need to need to extend my planning time frame.
For the past thirty years I’ve been, and continue to be, happily and gratefully married to a woman who is a long range planner. As a result of some “warm” conflicts and “cool” accommodations, we’ve learned together that there is a time, place and need for both long range and "point to point" planning. I/we’ve learned we can set the direction of our planning and then negotiate when, for whatever reasons, we need to adjust the specifics of out planning,
So, why all this attention on planning? For me, it relates to how I became a "point to point” planner in the first place. I don’t believe it’s an inherited family trait or a neurological glitch, or only a matter of temperament? Nor do I believe it’s a moral weakness or reflection of irresponsibility. I believe to a significant extent the tendency to be a “point to point” planner is a learned process which was etched in my psyche by early life experience.
The first 14 years of my life were during the Great Depression, the ongoing drought and Dust Bowl of the Midwest, followed by World War II. It was a time when life was necessarily pretty much a hand-to-mouth, day-by-day process. No one could plan much past the weekly pay check, women wearing dresses of stitched together flour sacks, abandoned farms in the wake of mass emigration or, after the war began, the strict limits of the rationing of many food and hardware products as well as gasoline, all set in the fog of chronic anxiety over the war news. Growing up in that context left an imprint on me that was deep and abiding. During those years I learned how tentative all planning had to be, and so, to be grateful for daily bread and to focus only on immediate challenges and small delights. I’ve already sketched out some of them.
Added to those overall conditions was the family pattern of frequent moves which precipitated changing neighborhoods, towns, schools. Those changes were increasingly anxiety charged. As I’ve reported, because of my Dad’s work, we moved from Huron to Aberdeen, South Dakota in March of 1943 and the months though that spring and summer were hellish for me. But when school started again that fall, things changed for the better. I became integrated into eighth grade society, blossomed in school, liked my teachers, loved the Y, valued the church Youth Group (with reservations), won increasing recognition for my athletic ability and began to deal, somewhat awkwardly, with the heightened appeal and daunting mystery of girls. The beginning of that school year was a very happy one for me.
Then it happened again. Just before Christmas, my Dad decided to leave his Nash Finch Co. job and go to a suburb of Portland, Oregon to join his father in the insurance business. He left in early January to begin his transition to another profession while I, Mom, my sister, Rosemary, a High School Senior that year, stayed behind to finish the school year.
Oregon? It seemed like another country. What would it be like? Where would we live? What would school be like in such a different place? Would I have any friends there? All my hopes and dreams of playing on the Aberdeen Eagles basketball and football teams crashed. My sister had to completely rethink her college plans, apply to the University of Oregon, which she’d never heard of or seen. and leave her adored, talented piano playing boy friend. Her emotional dilemma rightly marginalized and overwhelmed mine. I retreated further into introspection and anguished over how I, or we, could ever get through the next week or month or half year, or moving again? There was no counting on anything. Like it or not, that’s what I learned about planning. About living. Gnawing anxiety took up residence in my spirit.
We left Aberdeen for Oregon on my 14th birthday. The night before I visited the basement apartment of the prettiest girl in the 8th grade, the one I, and every boy in class, had a crush on. When I left, she went into the hall outside her family’s basement apartment and we kissed, my first kiss of that kind. I ran home, feeling guilty, rubbing my mouth all the way to wipe off, any possible incriminating trace of lipstick. Guilt, anxiety, flickers of gratification, dismay, sadness, anger, confusion were churning uncontrollably in me. I felt quite lost; homeless, somehow.
Here’s the kicker. The morning of the day before we were to leave for Oregon, I was riding my bike in front of the main Aberdeen Post Office, a couple blocks from the Y where I was headed for the last time. A man from “Youth For Christ” who had spoken at the church and a couple of older kids were standing there. The man called and motioned for me to stop. So I did. He one of the kids began talking to me about God’s plan for my life and how everything that happened was part that plan. They said God planned we’d be meeting and talking as we were. I asked, “You mean God planned for me to be right here, at this minute? And where I’m going next?” The man said, “Absolutely. That’s what it means that God cares about you.” I replied, “I have no choice in the matter?” “Not really,” he said. "Just accept that, accept Jesus, and you’re saved and joyful. It’s all part of God’s plan.” he said, I started to cry and yelled, “Why do I have to be saved? From what? I don’t believe God’s like that. We’re not robots.” With that I rode away toward the Y and Oregon in anxious confusion.
As I peddled along somewhat aimlessly at first, a new level in my awareness began to dawn in me that sparked a life long struggle with issues of love, faith, ethics and eventually theological exploration. However, that morning, on my bike, I had only a vague notion of what was involved in what had happened in my sidewalk exchange with those people, or what it any of it meant. What I did know was that I just couldn’t accept the idea that God plans everything for everyone. Why would God do that? Such planning that way didn’t make sense to me. I felt in my bones that having choices, not being controlled, is what love is about and that we, not God, were responsible for the consequences of what we did or didn’t do. Wasn’t that what Jesus meant about loving our neighbors as ourselves? Why else would he teach us to pray for God to forgive us as we forgive others? Wasn’t that more or less what Church Confirmation Class was about?
I just couldn’t have gotten it all wrong. Damn it,I just couldn’t have.
When I got to the Y, I sat for a long time on the entrance steps thinking about what our moving to Oregon was really about. Was my Grandmother Alice’s death in a car accident part of God’s plan? Did God arrange for my Grandmother to be killed so her youngest son, Dwight, who was driving at the time, would feel guilty enough to leave law school and become a minister? Was it God’s plan for my Grandfather to be so shattered by grief that he wandered aimlessly around for two or three years until he ended up going to Oregon to help his cancer stricken brother in his insurance business? And when his brother died, did my Grandfather really have no choice but to stay in Oregon because he didn’t have any place else to go? If all that was a grand plan ahead of time, how explain all that heartache and lonely caring? Was human courage and compassion just a sham? Was that what our moving amounted to? That notion deeply upset me. I couldn’t believe God was like that or did that, was no matter who said otherwise.
Sitting there, it began to occur to me that there had to be some distinction between a plan and a purpose. From what I’d learned from family and church, it felt better to say God had a purpose in creating us and sending Jesus to us than to believe it was all some empty game with every move determined ahead of time? If it was all a foregone conclusion, why would we go to church and say a prayer of confession for things we did wrong or good things we didn’t do? Or why say any prayers if that was the case? What purpose would there be in anything then?
Dimly I began to sense there had to be another way for life and God to be than everything being all planned out ahead of time. Why bother, if that’s how it was? Strangely, I started feeling a little better when I started thinking that way. Maybe our family moving to Oregon had a purpose, but wasn’’t just a pretend kind of plan we had to follow like dimwits. It helped to imagine there was a real purpose in our move, like my Dad’s choosing a different and maybe better kind of kind of work and we making a better family life and not moving all the time. Maybe for that purpose and we could all do things to help make that happen even though right then I didn’t have a clue about how to do that. I had to wait and see and that was the hard part. Isn’t it always? But as I sat there that morning, with tears on my face along with a sort of smile, felt some of the same way I remember feeling the long ago Christmas, a feeling I later realized was longing. That’s what I felt there on the Y steps, a longing to longed to belong somewhere, to belong to a family without having to perform perfectly, which I couldn’t do, to just belong, that was all. Often I feel that way all these years later
When I was growing up, my family prayed before every supper. We joined hands and said together, “Thank you God, for this food and all our blessings. Give us health and strength and courage and patience to do your will. In Jesus name, Amen.” Not fit your plan but do your will. It meant choice, responsibility. It meant asking for strength and courage and patience. And for the faith to pray.
I’ve spent a long time writing about the sources and emergence of my point to point temperament and the continuing struggle of it. I’ve intended it a section of my memoir though it may seem dense and pedantic. But I’ve written it to intentionally invite you into one of the deepest recesses of my spirit, of the way I’ve lived my life, and at least something of its why.
Let me close the loop of it by going both back to the beginning and the Lincoln biographical quote and to how it applies to my present state.
Remember how in his preface, David Herbert Donald quoted Lincoln’s explanation of his way of governing being like the river boat’s captains steering from point to point and setting their course no farther than they could see. I had the audacity to claim I was like Lincoln in that regard, and I am. But not completely. For Donald goes on to add that Lincoln’s point to point way of making decisions and taking action reflected another quality of what defines an exceptional person. Here is an excerpt of Donald’s additional description: "Lincoln in his own distinctively American way had the quality John Keats defined as forming 'a Man of Achievement,’ that quality which Shakespeare possessed so enormously … Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’” (2)
Not meaning to quibble, I’d suggest that the key word in this description of “negative capability” is “irritable” - i.e. “irritable reaching …” I think irritability in that context is the basic reaction to the lack of certainty, and that is what drives not so much the reach after fact and reason, but rather is the underlying blind passion and fear that reaches toward illusions, delusions, premature closure, denial … anything to achieve a sense of certainty though certainty be unachievable. I think that sort of reach is the greatest temptation, if not failure of nations, institutions and religion. Or conversely, I think negative capability is the essence of faith, the fiber of trust, the foundation of honesty, the fuel of hope, the fruit of love in the midst of uncertainties, doubts, Mysteries (capital referring to those of God).
It is also a capability I have only to an inadequate and incremental degree. I keep praying for it and trying in every way I know and can, to enlarge that capability as a Christian person. That is my purpose for myself and which, I passionately hope, is God’s purpose for me and for us all as we live our lives as finite beings. How about you?
Now, on to Oregon and further but next time. I hope your up for the trip.
(1) Lincoln - David Herbert Donald - Simon & Schuster Paperbacks - New York - 1995 - pg. 15