“Life at its best is always fresh and unrepeatable.” Mark Nepo shows us how to balance preparation and emotional readiness.
I want to explore the relationship between being prepared and being ready. Being prepared centers on thinking ahead and gathering the tools necessary to meet a situation. Being ready centers on the foundational ground we stand on and the clarity of view we meet a situation with. We often mistake being prepared for being ready, though the process of getting prepared can be the exercise by which we ready ourselves inwardly to meet any situation.
When Winston Churchill said, “planning is essential but plans are useless,” I think he was speaking to the difference between inward readiness and outward preparation. For the process of planning—of imagining different scenarios and what each possible venture might require—is more important in how it sharpens our perception and fortitude than any of the plans that we might conjure. For once in the moment, which can’t be foretold, any particular scenario can easily fall short of what will be required of us. Further, our insistence on what we have planned instead of meeting what is unforeseen can actually make matters worse.
In preparing to teach, I always think of the terrain I want to invite people into and create sessions around perennial questions, which I support with metaphors, stories, and poems. Then, I type up and print out all this material and put it in a folder. But once I’m with folks in real time, I hardly refer to my notes at all. I actually treat my notes more like a jazz musician’s setlist, choosing which tunes to play given the feel and needs of the people I’m with.
What I started to realize is that all that preparation is really to ready me inwardly to be thoroughly present with people once we’re together. I still do all the work to imagine the themes and sessions as well as gathering all the support materials. Because I believe that the notes and plans are kindling for the fire of unrehearsed connection that we enter once together.
Another example of the difference between preparation and readiness comes from the legendary play of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, specifically the improbable and incredible fielding play executed by Jeter known as “the flip.” In a playoff series against the Oakland Athletics in 2001, the Yankees had a 1-0 lead late in the game when a liner past first base gave Oakland slugger Jason Giambi an almost certain chance to score.
The ball was thrown toward home from right field as Giambi was circling third. Out of nowhere Jeter crossed the field to scoop up the short relay and flip it another 15 feet to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged Giambi out just as his foot hit home plate. What everyone had witnessed seemed unthinkable and exquisite.
What Jeter had done, with precise and fleeting reflex, was to field the relay as he would have any grounder hit to his position—though it was nowhere near his position. Then, he tossed the ball as he would have to second base to start a double play—though the play was at home plate.
Like all infielders, Jeter had prepared for the unpredictable bounces of a live game by fielding thousands of ground balls in practice, day after day, year after year. This was his preparation. But his readiness enabled him to go where the play would unfold. There, he applied his practiced skills to the unforeseen situation as it happened in real time—across the field.
We can also hide behind preparation, as if enough plans will somehow prevent hurt and loss from finding us. The truth is that, no matter what we draw on, we can’t avoid hurt or loss, only temper its harshness with the authority of our being and the clarity of our response. For hurt and loss are unavoidable passages in the human experience.
Life at its best is always fresh and unrepeatable. Often, in the face of the unknown, our fear of being caught off guard has us overprepare for situations that can’t be anticipated. When I was forced to return for another chemo treatment after my first was horribly botched, I sat with a counselor in the hospital, wanting to know how I could best prepare to go back in there. I was near frantic, overly focused on lists and resources, my anxiety and fear just below the surface. The kind counselor took my hand and said softly, “You can’t prepare for this.” The utter truth of his whisper stunned me. Then, he squeezed my hand and continued, “It will be what it will be, but if you’re ready, it will be okay.”
I didn’t understand what he was saying, but knew that somewhere under my fear, it felt true. In life and love and in meeting our suffering, we need both—to be prepared and to be ready. To be prepared is to know how to step. To be ready is to see where to step. To be prepared is to know how to pick up what is broken. To be ready is to have some sense of how the pieces go back together. To be prepared is to make a schedule. To be ready is to lean into the day with an open heart when the schedule is lost in the rain.
Questions to Walk With
- In your journal, describe a situation you are facing and how you can both prepare and ready yourself to meet it. How are these efforts different?
- In conversation with a friend or loved one, tell the story of a time when the process of planning served you though the plans you arrived at didn’t work out.
This excerpt is from Mark’s next book, Falling Down and Getting Up, to be published in September 2023 by St. Martin’s Essentials.
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