On Planning: Reflections on Control and Hope by Ivy Helman

20151004_161012We plan so many areas of our lives. We make big complex plans, like family get-togethers, vacations, business trips, conferences, large events, etc. We also plan weekly, daily and monthly smaller tasks. Some examples are doctors appoints, day trips, sports schedules, weekly dinner menus and perhaps even the clothes we are want to wear for a job interview or the first day of school.

Many plans happen without a hitch and then there are those plans that don’t. Usually we attribute a plan falling through to something unexpected like an illness leading to cancelling vacation or because of some mistake on our part like when we burnt dinner because we forgot we had food in the oven (which has never happened to me!). All of this is assuming we have some level of control over our plans, our lives and, even, our destiny. But how much control do we really have, and likewise, how much control do others have over our lives?

I’m not so sure there is any sort of easy answer to this question. However, if I were to offer my view, I would say it’s a mixed bag. There are so many parts of our lives we have no control over even if we’d like to think we do. We can’t control where and when we were born. It is debatable if we have some control or not over the ways in which our lives are affected by patriarchy, capitalism, racism, classism and the like. We can’t control whether others drive drunk. We can’t control thunderstorms, tornados or earthquakes.

Participating in a planned action for aid to Syrian refugees in Prague
Participating in a planned action for aid to Syrian refugees in Prague

There are also ways in which some of us have control over our lives and others don’t. The first example that comes to mind is food. Some of us have enough money and access to sources that we can choose to eat healthy, organic food, while many in this world have to choose between eating and medication, eating processed food because it’s cheaper and/or have nothing to eat at all. Many of us have running water in our houses. At the same time, many women and children must walk hours to their water source which prevents education and limits opportunities for employment and independence. Some people do not have access to the same opportunities others do even when equally qualified because of racism. Men and women receive different pay for the same job. Some roles in religious communities, women cannot take on for various “reasons.” We are making storms worse through our contributions to global warming. The more densely populated and poorly constructed the habitations are by a fault line, the more people are affected and the more die. I could keep going.

However, we can work to change much of this lack of control through planning and implementation. We can build access to clean water in poor villages or support organizations that do. We can accept food stamps at local farmer’s markets. We can make hiring minorities and increasing diversity a goal in companies. We can lobby for environmental causes. We can work on our own internalized racism, classism, sexism, etc.

That’s a rather shortened answer to a much longer reflection because I also want to draw attention to other pertinent and important questions. By thinking we can make plans, we also think we have some measure of control over our lives. On a personal level, then, how do we tell the story of our lives in terms of the plans and goals we have for ourselves? Do we measure our successes and failures based on our own planned standards, the standards of someone else or some combination of the two? Do we plan our lives around others in a way that denies our own goals, dreams, aspirations and desires? If we were to reflect on our lives and where we are now, does it match where we expected to be? If not, how do we explain it? If it does, how did we get here?

A picture of tulips from Cesky Krumlov that I took when we could see them in Amsterdam as we had planned because German rail was striking.
A picture of tulips from Cesky Krumlov that I took when we couldn’t see them in Amsterdam as we had planned because German rail was striking.

All of this is to say that I wonder how much of life we plan. I know that our lives are tremendously affected by the system of privileges and inequalities which enhance or limit our freedom to plan and our ability to fulfill those plans. Yet, I also question whether or not life is truly lived within the context of the plans we make, or is life lived rather through the ways in which we overcome, cope and live in the midst of the unexpected. Surely, no one plans to be sick or expects the death of a young one, but how many lives and subsequent life-work are shaped by unexpected occurrences such as these? I think they are significantly more than the number of lives explained by careful and meticulous planning.

If I had to venture a guess, I would suggest that the unexpected shapes our lives more than our plans do. In the end, we will never be able to plan everything. Realizing this doesn’t mean that we need an explanation for the unexpected – like our lives are destined, our current situation is a test or that the divine has some sort of plan. The reality is, whether we want to admit it or not, whether we believe in some sort of higher power, we just don’t have the amount of control over our lives that we wish we did. Our best-laid plans are often unfulfilled, (and Judaism would add that in some respects even G-d’s world isn’t exactly to how the divine envisioned it), but that doesn’t mean we stop planning.

For there is hope in our plans; hope that life can be different, hope that dreams come true, hope that people will connect, hope that lives are impacted and hope that the world will become a better place. In many ways, hope, that we are doing the right thing and that life will turn out better in the end, seems to be not only the reason we plan but also what sustains us when what happens wasn’t at all in our plans.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.  She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department.  In addition to teaching and research, Ivy spends considerable amounts of time learning Czech, painting, drawing, creating new kosher delicacies and playing with her dog, Mini, and cat, Gabbi.



Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

9 thoughts on “On Planning: Reflections on Control and Hope by Ivy Helman”

  1. I wonder how this post is affected by living in eastern Europe? I was not aware of how much Americans believe we can control our lives until I lived in a culture with a very different worldview. For me process philosophy’s combination of chance and choice makes the most sense of my experience. Yet the desire to affirm that someone is in charge, if not you and me, then God, is hard to get over. Just last night a young Greek friend was asking me if I believed his grandmother’s unlucky life and unhappy and often cruel disposition was the result of/punishment for her evil deeds in a previous life.


  2. When we feel we are in control of something (or someone), we make plans. When our plans fail, we feel personally responsible for the failure (I am the one making the world go around after all), and so we feel guilt and shame. Let go of the “power over” idea and then you can let go of the guilt.


  3. Thanks, Ivy, you asked: “On a personal level, then, how do we tell the story of our lives in terms of the plans and goals we have for ourselves?” Very simple — just be who are and let yourself be surprised by your own gifts.


  4. Lots of times things in my life have gone a different way then I expected, but which turned out better than I could have anticipated. I think that’s basically what Carol is pointing to at the end of her comment.


  5. This makes me think of the saying, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” or this one: “Humans plan, god(dess) laughs.” This post made me wonder about the effectiveness of goal setting, affirmations, positive intention, and other popular approaches to leading a good life. These are all good tools, but I think they need to be practiced with a paradoxical acceptance of the power of the unexpected, and the limitations on our personal control over our worlds.


  6. Maybe wisdom is in planning with an open heart while living what comes along in life? Darned if I know! I was never very good at making long range plans.


  7. To plan is to realize dreams,
    To dream is to live those plans.
    Today is the result of those dreams and plans.
    Tomorrow we dream again,
    Fullfulling our life and making us who we are.
    Goals, plans, dreams, and the joy and disappointment they bring are the essence of life.
    I am the father of Ivy, my very gifted and cherished daughter, a realized dream! Love you dad

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is so sweet Jim. I can’t help but adding that the fact that many of us did not realize our parents’ perhaps more specific dreams is a cause of suffering for both the parents and the children. Ivy is lucky to have such a loving and accepting parent!


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