The best laid schemes

“The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” That’s a typical translation of a line from “To a Mouse,” a poem written by the Scotsman Robert Burns in 1785. The poem is a whimsical apology to a field mouse whose nest Burns accidentally plowed up, sending the poor creature skittering away in terror.

Burns empathizes with the mouse, who has diligently built a cozy home against the coming winter, not expecting the plow. But, he muses, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley”: to their grief and pain, both mice and men suffer a lack of foresight.

Burns goes further, in a way philosophers of mind and neuropsychologists alike would appreciate. Compared to himself, Burns considers the mouse blessed; it is terrified, but only for the moment. Human beings like himself, however, are capable of existential suffering: they ruminate over their dreary past and fear their invisible future.

Thus the poem ends. Burns may have thought about it all night.

The mouse? The wee beastie probably just went looking for somewhere else to set up shop.

. . .

I’m reminded of Burns’ poem while thinking about the story of Acts 21 and the theme of hope. Before Paul set foot in Jerusalem, he knew trouble was coming. His friends in Tyre told him trouble was coming. The prophet Agabus told him trouble was coming. His companions and the believers in Caesarea begged Paul not to go up to Jerusalem, because they knew — say it with me now — trouble was coming.

And the leadership of the Jerusalem church knew it too. So they put their heads together and came up with a plan to defuse the rising anger of the people and steer clear of trouble: Do some really pious things, Paul, and the people will stop accusing you of being a heretic.

Right. That oughta do it.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that the plan was hopelessly naive. It made sense on paper, but assumed that people would be thinking rationally instead of leading with their emotions and prejudices. As we’ll see, it didn’t take long to find out just how wrong they were.

. . .

But Luke doesn’t chide James and the other church leaders for their naivete. He just reports what happened. And realistically, the same plot line plays out again and again in organizations even today. Trouble is coming. What shall we do? Let’s make a plan. Let’s appoint a committee. Ooh, here’s an idea. Okay, that’s sure to work. Let’s try it. Oops. 

It’s often tempting, at that point, to give up hope. We gave it our best shot. That’s all we got. The situation feels hopeless.

According to psychologist C. R. Snyder, hope has two components: the perception of both agency (“I can do this”) and a pathway (“Here’s how”). When we invest hope in a plan and it fails miserably, it can injure our sense of agency, leaving us feeling at the mercy of forces we can’t control.

But here’s the thing: many if not most situations are more complicated than we realize at first. We really do have less control that we might like to imagine. When our plans fail, that’s not a wholesale rejection of our agency; it’s a rejection of our presumed omniscience and omnipotence.

. . .

If our ability to make things happen is the foundation of our hope, sooner or later we’re going to hit a wall, unless we set our sights low or wrap ourselves up in some kind of protective bubble. When things feel hopeless, we should ask ourselves, “On what was my hope built?” Even our best-laid schemes make a poor foundation. 

Robert Burns, meet Edward Mote, a Baptist pastor born in London in 1797, a dozen years after the publication of “To a Mouse.” In 1834, Mote wrote these words:

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.

The verses continue. Christ is not only our solid rock, but our anchor in the storm and flood; “When all around my soul gives way / he then is all my hope and stay.” The hymn ends as the biblical story ends: Christ returns with the blast of a trumpet, and believers stand before the throne clothed in his righteousness.

That is the basis of true Christian hope.

. . .

So go ahead and make plans; some of them are bound to work. Exercise your agency; you have it, and it’s your responsibility as one created in God’s image to use it well and wisely.

But never rest your hope on what you think you can accomplish, whatever your track record may be. Take your place in the ongoing story of what God has done in Jesus, and continues to do through his Spirit. There, and there only, is your ultimate anchor, hope, and stay.