If you happen to be a planner like I am, this quotation may not sit well with you. If you’re proactive and prefer action to passivity—you may not like what this quotation asserts. But let’s begin by relaxing. Let’s begin by looking at what this quotation does not say nor imply.
Emerson was not opposed to planning. He was not opposed to dreaming. He was not opposed to having goals clearly stated and moving toward them. He would not argue that plans are futile or meaningless. He would not claim that we should just let life happen to us. Or that we should simply react to what life hands us. He would say none of these things. So what IS he saying?
He’s saying that life is uncertain. That life does not offer us guarantees. Even when we plan very specifically. Even when we take deliberate measures to more greatly ensure that our future is exactly like we envision it. Even if we have a clearly defined objective and a well thought-out blueprint for our lives. Even if we do all we can possibly do to orchestrate tomorrow and design it to fulfill our ends and purposes. The fact remains—much of life is uncertain. Very few people have lives that are exactly as they planned or predicted. There are twists and turns in the journey that not even the most forward thinking can predict. Here are just a handful of examples:
- Our health changes
- Our children don’t turn out as we expected
- We lose our job or even our career
- Friends abandon us or betray us
- We lose skills that were once highly developed
- We make investments that go south
- We have marital conflicts we never predicted
- We begin endeavors only to have them fail
- We miscalculate
- We lose friends and family through death
- Our marriage ends
- We count on people who let us down
- We envision a future that never comes
Emerson was well aware of life’s uncertainties. He was also aware of life’s gifts. He wanted us to keep two things in mind as we move forward on our journey.
- Life is uncertain—accept it
- Life should be active—embrace it
I think that when he said ‘life is an experiment,’ he wasn’t claiming that life is TOTALLY UNCERTAIN. That we just throw caution to the wind and give our actions little thought. He’s saying that in the end—we just don’t know what our actions will yield. Which is why he also said, ‘Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions.’ That is, life should have a balance to it. An ebb and flow to it. That we should go ahead and make our plans. We can make them as specific as we like. But we should also recognize that only God is truly sovereign. Even the most powerful human ruler is not truly sovereign. Even the most powerful ruler may lose power tomorrow. They might even be dead tomorrow.
So when you make choices that reflect your plans. When you approach life proactively and with clear purpose and resolve. When you choose to bring your dreams to your life rather than simply react to the circumstances—do keep the following in mind. Don’t be timid or squeamish about your actions. Why not? Because you can’t know in advance what will happen through your actions. You can only plan and then take action. You cannot really know. In this sense, life is an experiment. This is why I love what H. Jackson Browne said, a portion of which I discussed in an earlier post:
‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’
Because in large measure, life is an experiment. We cannot know what will happen when we take action. In fact, NOT taking action is an experiment too. So take action. It’s more exciting and more interesting and more fulfilling than just sitting around waiting.
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