A mouse looks up from the field towards a blue sky with clouds, with a faint awareness ribbon motif in the background.

The Best Laid Plans

The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote his poem “To a Mouse” in 1875. He had no idea that his sad lyric about a mouse whose home is upturned by a plow included phrases and lines that would live forever in the common lives of everyday English speakers.

Best laid plans of mice and men...

Here are a couple of lines from the original poem, in the Scottish dialect of the time, followed by a more modern and prosaic interpretation:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. They leave us with nothing but grief and pain instead of promised joy. In the last stanza, the poet says that the mouse has it better than humans because the present only touches the mouse, though humans can live in fear imagining what the future holds.

One decision leads to another

I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in March of 2017, but I chose active surveillance as my initial treatment, so I didn’t have to cancel any travel or strenuous exercise that year. I researched and signed up for a 13 day hiking trip in Patagonia for early January 2019. What I didn’t anticipate was that my PSA would continue to rise, and, given other data from my diagnosis and after, I decided to have radical prostatectomy surgery in April 2018. Summer plans were revised, recovery was the top priority. I hung onto the dream of going to Patagonia. One big obstacle: incontinence.

Adjusting plans won't slow me down

Thanks to kegels and healing, I recovered quickly from the initial flood that followed my surgery. But by September, the deadline for pulling out of the Patagonia trip if I wanted to get my money back, I was still leaking enough that the idea of hiking 200 miles with strangers while having to change shields or pads seemed unpleasant, at least. I couldn’t count on being healed by January, so I canceled. It was the right decision.

Two years later, incontinence is still an issue, but I don’t let it slow me down. I play golf, hike, walk my dog a couple of miles a day. In mid-September I’m going on a three day backpacking trip with my three sons, our first together as a group since 2001. I was 52 then; now I’m a couple of months away from 72. That’s the plan. Our biggest concern? The wildfires that are burning all over California. Those lines from Burns might be echoing through my head again as we try to decide on...Plan B.

No plans, no life

But here’s how I look at it: No plans, no life. No life, no opportunity for disappointment. No disappointment, no chance to learn, to grow, to summon the resolve to try again. My sons are all accomplished athletes. When they were young, I tried to teach them resilience, to accept disappointment and the challenge it presents: give up or try harder. Don’t look ahead and fear the future, set new goals and go after them.

If Plan A doesn’t work, go to Plan B

Prostate cancer has taught me how to follow my own parental guidance. It certainly wasn’t part of the plan, but after the initial disappointment, I renewed my commitment to the kind of life I want to lead.

In that way, I’m like the mouse in Burns’ poem. Stay in the present, rebuild, don’t fear the future. Doing nothing is not an option. If Plan A doesn’t work out, go to Plan B.

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