But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
I broke my elbow this weekend. It’s an embarrassing story that involves a skateboard, a slick garage floor, and me having no business being on a skateboard. The fall, or rather the abrupt landing, not only broke my radial cap (the elbow end of the small bone in my forearm) but bruised and battered my whole left side. This event was not in my weekend plans.
“Of Mice and Men” is a novella written by John Steinbeck and published in 1937. Steinbeck’s story of George Milton and Lennie Small is about dreams, aspirations, and plans, and how easily and often those are thwarted and lost. He took the name of the book from the above poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough,” written in 1785 by Robert Burns.
The best-laid schemes of mice and men, Go often askew.
Human beings are by nature planners. We live our lives day by day, assuming that tomorrow will come and that the things we plan to do will come to pass. This, despite substantial evidence from our experiences that those plans will often be interrupted or cut short.
We are currently living in a time when most people’s plans have been significantly altered. We have been forced to cancel events, postpone important life moments, and interrupt the normal flow of our daily lives. In spite of this, everyone I know is continuing to make plans for the future. There is some acknowledgement that those plans may have to be adjusted, yet plan we do.
Why do we do this? Why take the risk?
We invest money and effort into assets and endeavors whose value and success are influenced by millions of things outside our control. We buy a house, expecting its value to increase. We go to school, presuming there will be demand for our degree when we finish. We establish a lifestyle based on our present income, assuming it will not decrease.
We plan projects and strategies that involve people and processes that are unpredictable at best and essentially unknown to us at worst. An easy to recall case in point would be our plans for Cornerstone. People buy concert tickets months in advance.
Everything that is worth living for as a human being carries risk. Without risk there is no reward. Yet all our planning must carry with it an acknowledgement that we are not in control.
In human relationships we must trust others and expose ourselves to potential hurt for there to be in intimacy and fulfillment. Many of the people we allow in will let us down and even harm us. We have very limited ability to discern beforehand who will meet our expectations and who will fail us.
At the end of the poem Burns is envious of the mouse:
Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!
He seems to be saying that it would be better to know only today, with no recollection of the past and no anticipation of the future. He sees the past as a series of failures and unmet expectations and the future full of potential disappointment. However, this is a choice he is making. We do not have to make the same choice.
While we have little or no control over the people and circumstances surrounding us, we do have control over ourselves, our thoughts, and our responses. Unlike the mouse who is, in fact, blessed to be touched only by the present, we have the gifts of gratefulness and hope.
It is through gratefulness that we redeem the past. While unpleasant (and often painful), our failures and disappointments always have hidden treasure. It is through the lens of gratefulness that we are able to discover the lessons and blessings that were disguised as difficulties. Additionally, our ability to remember allows us to grow and change in ways that improve our capacity to positively impact those around us.
Hope gives us the ability to anticipate the future. There is always risk in moving forward, but in front of us is where our fulfillment lies. It is because we have hope that we are willing to invest and plan and trust. In fact, the positive anticipatory outlook that hope provides actually intensifies our creativity during crisis.
I do not envy the mouse. I am not content to only be touched by the present. Rather I am grateful to be human and have the blessing of the past and the anticipation of the future to enrich my life. My plans may go askew (as they have this weekend), yet I will continue to hope. Great leaders will have a long list of past failures that they can share and a hopeful and strategic outlook for the future that others can follow. This is how we contribute to the community we care for, and this is The Kimray Way.