On the Difficulties of Planning

In an interview with the New York Times, E.B. White, the writer of Charlotte’s Web, said:

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

A few years ago, I expressed the same sentiment—with much less eloquence—to a friend who asked me what my biggest obstacle to making a difference in the world would be. I said:

I have days when, if a genie were to give me a choice between saving the world and having a really good cup of coffee, I’d pick the coffee. I think that self-indulgent streak would be my single biggest obstacle.

The answer disappointed my friend, who was expecting me to give an answer along the lines of I’d-drink-a-really-good-cup-of-coffee-while-going-about-saving-the-world. As meritorious as that response would be from a beauty pageant perspective, it would be lying, on the one hand, and cheating, on the other. Because glib answers notwithstanding, a tension does exist between our urge for improvement and our desire for enjoyment—a tension that manifests itself in the struggle between anticipating the future and savoring the present and being committed to goals and remaining unattached to results.

And this is precisely why the first week of 2012 has been such a mixed bag for me. Some days were about saving the world; other days were about savoring it. But I’m sorely missing a sense of equilibrium: I haven’t quite managed to do one thing without feeling the loss of the other, and it robs me of any possible satisfaction. If, as E.B. White put it, the struggle “makes it hard to plan the day”—the struggle certainly makes it harder to plan the year.

At least now I’m clear what my task for January will be.



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