The Best Laid Plans...

If you want to make God laugh tell him about your plans.
— Woody Allen

By the fall of 2013 I was sure I had my life all mapped out. On the eve of my 50th birthday I had a successful business career, a big house in the country, three beautiful children and was twenty-one and a half years into a marriage that I thought would last forever. I had no reason to believe the rest of my life wouldn't unfold according to my grand plan.

Then my doctor told me I had cancer.

As if my diagnosis wasn't terrifying enough, I now had to grapple with the realization that the rest of my life -- and who knew how long that was going to be; the average life expectancy for a man diagnosed with prostate cancer is thirteen years -- wasn't going to unspool in the way I had long assumed it would.

Had this been a mere bump in the road I would have carried on, continuing to ignore the signals, which had become more and more frequent, that my plan was a mirage, a vain attempt to impose order on something that is, by nature, disorderly.

But this wasn't a bump in the road. My path was blocked.

I slowly began to reckon with the realization that my career, which I had always considered a happy accident, had more or less plateaued at least five years earlier, by my mid-40s. I had watched as my peers raced past me, to more lucrative and senior positions. I saw their advances and wondered why my career hadn't followed a similar trajectory. I assumed that I lacked whatever it was that enabled their success; I wasn't smart enough or I didn't work hard enough or people didn't like me enough.

Now I could no longer avoid the truth: I didn't care enough, and no amount of money or accolades or material possessions could get me to care more.

I also began to question my marriage. I started to look at my relationship with my wife, who I had met twenty-five years earlier, with a newfound clarity. I began to see that I was holding onto certain limiting beliefs, that things should have been a certain way, or that I somehow deserved them to be different than they were.

I slowly started to take responsibility for the behaviors that resulted in me not getting the love I felt I deserved. This enabled me to forgive my wife for the many resentments that had built up over our decades together, and to finally extricate myself from the emotional dysfunction we had created. I was finally able to leave behind the baggage I had been lugging around since childhood. The neediness, the shame, the belief that I needed to be a certain way to be worthy of love. Shedding these invisible emotional shackles would ultimately prepare me to one day stand in relationship with another woman as a whole emotional being.

Realizing that I had been sleepwalking through most of my life was a bitter pill to swallow. The plan that I had convinced myself was of my own creation I came to see was created by my unconscious self, the part of me that craved the validation of other people. It was only when the road in front of me became impassable that I was forced to confront this hard truth.

I spent some time -- too much time -- feeling sorry for myself, believing my cancer diagnosis to be the penalty for decades spent living an inauthentic life, for pursuing things and serving interests that didn't nourish my soul.

But I didn't flinch. I didn't run away from the pain or try to anesthetize myself. I didn't look for someone or something else to blame. I sat in the purifying fire of self-reflection until I could clearly identify and accept the essential truths of my life.

And what were these truths that I came to realize?

  1. Holding onto things too tightly limits change. Without change there can be no growth. And once the growth stops the only thing left is death

  2. It's all too easy to convince yourself that you have a life without really living

  3. Being the author of your life is a full-time job. Treat it as such. Pay attention and reap the rewards

  4. Understand the things by which you measure the value of your life. Re-examine them regularly to make sure you stay on track

  5. Plans are fine -- they have a time and a place -- just don't get too attached to them

  6. Knowing your purpose -- what you're here for -- will keep you focused on the things that matter

In What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, James Hollis writes that "the recovery of personal authority is critical to the conduct and reconstruction of the second half of life." Without waking up to this challenge of reclaiming our agency we will "remain the lowliest of serfs to the tyrannies of whatever remains unconscious."

My only plan now is to stay awake.

Image source: Pexels

Image source: Pexels

You are scared of dying — and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different than being dead?
— Seneca