As I approach the mid-point of my 57th year on Planet Earth, I have lamented my lost years, those times in which I did not do great deeds, when, upon reflection of the previous 12 months, I found myself wanting them back so that I might do what I had intended to do at their beginning.
How laughable is that?
Vonnegut, in this letter to his daughter Nanny on 20 November 1972, suggests a better attitude.
You are dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well — I feel as though I’ve lost years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarkey. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the year in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not. — p. 176
While I did not realize all that I set out to accomplish last year, I did have adventures. That I’ve moved from a liberal to a conservative community – the Gadsden flag flies daily at the end of my road – is one example.
Just out of college, when I first sat down to record my most basic, my universal, principles and formulate long-term (those requiring a year or more to accomplish) goals, one of my principles was:
Avoid complacency by prizing continual learning. Follow paths less taken for they lead to adventure and the marrow of life. Seek opportunities to develop and master my personal and professional skills. Be open to non-structured, experiential instruction by willingly listening to others. Embrace lessons in fields outside my present scope and broaden my horizons to discover insights to challenges.
I have not always lived this Universal Principle well, but I think that back in ‘80s, when I formulated the core my philosophy, my thoughts ran parallel to Vonnegut’s. When we over plan we exclude opportunities for vital, a hah! moments that foster growth. There must be balance, however, else doing nothing so as to be ready when opportunity knocks brings sloth and stupor.
Vonnegut’s message here is that keeping your nose to the grindstone certainly gets the work done, but also leads to a flat nose and, eventually, needing a new grindstone. I can imagine no more horrible existence than that of a draft animal’s perfectly planned life treading the nedders from dawn to dusk. How much worse for a person to be similarly yoked?
I watched Slaughterhouse-Five again last evening and I can see Vonnegut’s idea expressed to his daughter here as well, and perhaps that is one reason he feels: as though I’ve lost years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published…. Billy Pilgrim escapes to Tralfamadore, leaving his always-losing-weight wife and over-planned career as an optometrist (can there be a more ordered life than writing eyeglass prescriptions?) and has just the kind of adventure Vonnegut encourages for Nanny.
May this year be an adventurous one for us all.