Our ability to create and execute personal plans is not what makes us great. In fact, our unequivocal determination to make self-improvement plans and become angry when we can’t stick to them is what makes us not so great and pretty annoying.
What does make us great however is our ability to deal with a life without plans, with adversity and spontaneity. Not only does this ability allow us to deal with life, this ability goes further and actually gives us life if we don’t allow our future plans and aspirations to dictate how we view the present.
Sure, it is good to have dreams and to plan, but not to the detriment of what is happening right now. We might have to change them slightly depending on the circumstances we are currently experiencing but that is fine because we are on a journey, and the best part is, we have no idea where we are going. To some people that is too scary a thought, but you know what, it doesn’t matter! After all, where we end up depends on how we travel and how we travel is determined by our attitude. You planned to get on that train for 100 miles but got thrown off after 20.
What do you do about that? Walk back to the station and try again, cursing the fact that everything is ruined? Or get in the car that just pulled up and head east for a while with those three strangers? Where are they going? It doesn’t matter!
The car breaks down just outside a small town you have never been to before.
The four of you are irritated because the journey had been so smooth until this point, but you decide to make the most of it so you go into the town, get a drink and stay for the night.
You can sort it in the morning, there’s no rush. You meet some people at the bar, it seems you have a lot in common. They ask you where you were heading, to which you reply that you have no idea.
They look surprised and are intrigued at your lack of concern for the future oddly juxtaposed with a clear joie de vivre.
You tell them to join you.
“But you don’t know where you’re going”, they respond.
“Exactly” you say. “That’s why you should come, we’re all heading there!”
Just as you are leaving with your new recruits a big brute of a man steps in front of the door, “where do you think you’re going?” he says to them, “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Get back to the factory; you have debts to work off, stuff to buy and a house to uphold. There are plenty of people who would happily take your job, so if you want to lose everything then carry right on, son.” Your new friend apologises before turning to follow the man.
The joy that springs from adversity was a concept that I experienced first hand just before Christmas when I was journeying up to spend the week with my parents in Yorkshire. I was reminded that there is much intrinsic happiness to be found in the obstacles that life throws your way, or at least in overcoming them. We have a very real and natural ability to change our goal posts as a situation unravels to be not quite what you had planned or expected.
I started my car for the first time after four days of snow and freezing temperatures. Reversing it off the drive I noticed a very strange sound, like the groaning of an old tree in the wind.
I imagined it was just cold and needed some time to warm up. As I started to drive down the road I noticed a strange burning smell, clearly coming from the same place as the noise. I needed to make a couple of stops around town to drop various bits of Christmas off to friends and family so at each destination I had a look around the wheel, in an effort to diagnose what it could be.
There was still frozen slush around the tyres so I just decided, probably more from hope than reason that it just needed to melt and things would be fine. (Goal post moved from general journey plan to getting rid of the smell and noise).
Eventually I got on my way, it was later than planned, and it was getting dark and snowing again.
The noise and smell were still there, more prevalent when I was turning the wheel. Most of the journey was motorway, I thought so I wouldn’t really need to turn the wheel anyway.
Isn’t it amazing what goes through your mind on the brink of disaster?
I breathed through my mouth so as not to smell the impending doom and then turned right (for the first time in my whole journey) as I swung onto the A46 – I don’t know how or why I noticed but it became completely apparent that I had got everywhere by just left turns, and straight lines obviously otherwise I’d have just been doing doughnuts on my driveway.
The noise got worse, and so did the smell as I started to speed up, I knew I should turn round and go back home to work out what was wrong (Goal post moved from getting rid of smell and noise to getting home without something bad happening).
I probably made it about two hundred metres before there was a final groan and huge hiss just as the car fell left. I whacked the hazard lights on and attempted to get as far over in the hard shoulder as possible. It was covered in a big pile of snow so I couldn’t get over very far. I clambered over to the passenger side and got out, for three reasons.
Firstly, the car was penetrating the inside lane and could have easily been hit, secondly, I wanted to survey the damage, and thirdly, I wanted to call my insurance company. I stepped into the snow and my feet became saturated in freezing water, I was wearing plimsolls (bad choice).
I tried to find the number for the breakdown in my phone, lorries were tearing past, bright lights, overwhelming rumbles of death in low visibility conditions. The phone started ringing, I couldn’t hear anything because of the sound from the traffic. I was in no man’s land, it was snowing, my feet were like frozen frogs at the bottom of a pond and I couldn’t go anywhere even on foot (Goal post moved from getting home to getting anywhere alive).
This was probably the lowest point of my journey.
I pressed the tyre with my finger again. I could tell it had blown but there was still air in it, the outside of it was hard. I remember thinking, right Andy, here we go this is not fight or flight, this is fight and flight as I got back into the car with one thing on my mind, finding somewhere safer. I started the engine, it worked, I took off the handbrake and edged forward tentatively, it moved, I started indicating to pull back out, the lane cleared and I was off.
Every metre progressed was like nectar, and suddenly there it was, the Mecca on my pilgrimage. A lay-by! Fifty; forty; then just thirty metres. Indicator, come on, you can make it! Just as I pulled in there was an almighty bang and the car jolted, much more fiercely than the first time.
I fought with the steering wheel to keep the car straight and the momentum took me miraculously just over halfway down the lay-by. I had never been so grateful for a bit of extra tarmac, it was beautiful. I roared countless expletives of sheer delight. (Goal post moved from getting somewhere alive to living life in a whole new way…then after a few minutes getting the breakdown people out).
I phoned again and ordered myself a breakdown man. He would be two to three hours. My feet were still very cold, I didn’t want to use unnecessary battery and fuel so I began to hibernate, I decided that sleeping was probably the best way to forget about the abuse my body was becoming subjected to by mother-nature (and my bad planning).
Eventually I woke up with a start as a man was tapping on my window, there was bright headlights from a truck in the rear view mirror. I have seen many horror films in my time and at this moment I was filled with fear, he was going to kill me, what did he want? He could take my car, it was no good anyway, my wallet, phone? (Goal post moved from getting the breakdown people out to not being brutally murdered).
Then I remembered why I was there and reasoned that he probably was the breakdown man. I got out. He changed the tyre. I asked him what he thought it was and told him about the noise and smell. He said it was just a slow puncture and that I would be OK to drive the hundred miles or so up to Harrogate that evening. I signed the paperwork and got on my way (Goal post moved from not being brutally murdered to making it to Harrogate again).
As I drove I felt the steering was still not right. I let go of the wheel and it veered sharply to the left. I supposed it was probably just because the spare tire was a different size and that this was normal. After all I had never driven on a spare before. I noticed the noise was still there too when I slowed down and turned. There was no smell though so I continued with faith and trust in the breakdown man. Eventually I made it to my destination without any more incidents, I would go and get a new tyre in the morning (Goal post moved from chilling out to replacing the tyre).
My mum and I found a speciality tire garage, not far from the house and they had the right sort of tyre for my car. I drove it in and the mechanic took the spare off. He stood back and declared that my suspension had snapped and that I would need to get that sorted before I could replace the tyre. He was right. The spring had slipped right down.
That was an answer to many unanswered questions. He put the spare back on. We looked at the old tyre, there was the hole, or should I say rip that had been torn by the spring. It was just a slow puncture, hey? Fortunately there was a garage right around the corner as they told me I shouldn’t drive far with it like that.
I didn’t tell him how far I had driven on it like that. The next mechanic said he could fix it within a couple of days, which was great. It would cost a couple of hundred pounds, which was on top of the fifty-five pounds for the new tyre (Goal post moved from changing and paying for tyre to adapting to an extra unexpected financial hit and working out how to pay for it).
It worked out fine in the end, and thank you to a ridiculous anonymous donation I was able to pay for the work to be done. The mechanic had taken photos of the car because he had been amazed at what it looked like. I told him how far I had driven and he was shocked that I had made it, let alone without a more serious crash.
The severed end of the spring was on the brink of slashing, not just the spare tyre, which had been worn down, but the brake hose as well. It could have been a whole different story. Needless to say I am still waiting to hear back from the breakdown people, I sent them the pictures and told them what had happened and the state of the car I had been allowed to drive, as well as the lack of interest for my concerns about the noises and smell.
But this is besides the point that I am making here, my main point is that life is about mini-victories, overcoming little hurdles, moving the goal posts and adjusting our minds to deal with them. At every stage of my journey I reset my expectations and dreams so that I could gain some kind of (albeit slightly twisted sounding) intrinsic enjoyment through adverse circumstances.
I didn’t just give up and curse my luck declaring that everything was ruined and my life was shit before phoning someone to come and deal with it for me while I was useless and life-sucking company.
I made myself consciously aware of the need to redefine my hopes so that I could adequately deal with the situation, and not only that, quite enjoy it in an experiential kind of way.
I had exactly the same thought as I was watching 127 Hours. Yes there are regrets for some of the things that get you into tough circumstances, but it is about getting out of them that brings life.
Aron Ralston exemplifies perfectly the intrinsic victories brought about by goal post changing. When he woke up that morning how would he have felt about cutting off his own arm? Not cool. But in the context of a situation out of which he is trying to get, the pain and difficulty caused by the struggle to set himself free is met with a huge celebration when he finally manages it – a genuine feeling of joy at a ridiculously bad thing when looked at outside of the appropriate context.
But that is all we can do and indeed all we need to do if we are going to actually live. Not to consider where we are in the context of where we dreamed we might be in the future, but rather in the context of what we can do now to be free from our immediate struggle, however small a victory that might be in the grand scheme of things.
Because at the end of the day the big picture is made up of every little movement we make and if they are of intrinsic worth to you and others then that will be reflected in it.