Sixty-seven

25 years after he started Sky Flight, Inc., my father sold the Yellowstone Air Service division of his company. Included in the sale were the airplanes and equipment for the application of chemicals and fertilizers, the airport fixed base operation, and the air charter business. He cited 25 years of accident-free operation and said that 25 years was long enough to work in a high risk occupation. At that time, he retained the parent corporation and the divisions that sold farm machinery and a leasing company. Around a decade later he sold Big Timber Farm Supply, the equipment business. He had been in that business for 25 years. Once again he said that 25 years was enough for that business. Looking back, I don’t think he actually planned to do those things in exactly the way they worked out. In fact, I suspect that when he started the flying business, he intended to do that for the rest of his career and he had no intention of going into the farm machinery business. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and responded to opportunities as they arose. It was just the way things worked out and the numbers happened to be neat.

I think of my father a lot when I am thinking of my life. I admire his spirit and his dedication to his family. I loved being with him and was usually energized and engaged in whatever we were doing. I enjoyed his support for my educational career and my choice of vocation. He was a really great dad and I’m lucky to have been born into his family. Our lives, however, have taken different courses. Still, I think I have imitated him a great deal in the course of my life.

He would often talk to me about plans that he had for his life. He had goals that he was pursuing. They often had to do with serving institutions he loved. He was a huge supporter of church camp and he had a passion for Rocky Mountain College, a church-related liberal arts college on whose Board of Trustees he served. He spent countless hours improving the campuses of both places by going to work and doing jobs such as roofing buildings, doing remodeling, donating equipment, and caring for grounds.

As I grew into adulthood, I thought I was imitating him by having plans. I set goals, like completing my degrees by the age of 25, and becoming a published author by the age of 30. I met some of my goals - both of those actually - but others didn’t work out the way I’d planned. I often used round numbers like 25, 30 or 35 because they are easy and also because somewhere I had heard that careers unfold in five-year increments. “You need to have a 5-year plan to achieve career goals,” is something I’ve carried in my mind.

As the years stretched on, I continued to make similar plans. Some worked out. Most did not. Although I knew I wanted to become a father, I had no idea what impact that would have on my professional writing. Sleep deprivation doesn’t enhance your book-writing time. Also, opportunities don’t open up in even five-year spacings. So we attended college for four years and graduate school for four years and served our first parish for seven years before receiving a call to our second parish.

Still I thought in five year blocks of time. So my plan was to actively work until the age of 70 and then retire. That would be 45 years of service as a pastor to local congregations. I like the numbers.

Today I turn 67. It isn’t a year that ends in a 5 or a 0 and I had not planned for this to be a significant birthday. But the reality is that although I remain technically employed until the end of the month, my retirement party was yesterday. We are in the midst of huge change in our lives. I have to figure out a plan for retirement. We’ve meet with a financial advisor, we’ve done some calculating, we have a rough idea of a general direction for the next phase of our life, but we don’t exactly have a plan. When people ask me about what is going to happen next, I keep answering, “We’re waiting to see what happens with the pandemic.”

It isn’t the pandemic that has thrown off our plans, it is more my general understanding of the planning process. Planning is good and necessary when building something that is fixed and understood. Planning is essential for building a house or a road or any number of other things. However, building a life is a different kind of problem. The goal is not fixed. More importantly, we don’t have the required information to plan our lives. We don’t know how long we will live. We don’t know what health challenges we will encounter. We don’t know what new options will open up. We are also missing information about ourselves. We humans are constantly changing. Interests and passions change. Something like the current unrest in the streets of our country, for example, has caused me to re-think my work as a law enforcement chaplain. It seems to be a very good moment to pull back from that particular part of my career. I didn’t see that coming at all. I thought that I would continue that part of my work long beyond my retirement, and I may still pursue that path, but I’m aware that things are changing. I don’t want to end up doing what I wanted to do 20 or 30 years ago. I’d rather pursue my current passions.

In design theory a distinction is made between a planning problem, where you have sufficient information, and a wicked problem, where you lack sufficient information. Wicked problems are more complex and solved not by having an overall plan, but by following a line and solving problems as they come along.

I think my life has always been a wicked problem. I’ve learned to react to the circumstances and respond to the current issues. So, at 67, I confess I don’t have a plan for the next three or five years. I have some ideas. I have some streams I want to follow. I have some ideas I want to pursue. And that will have to be enough.

Maybe I’ll have a clearer picture when I turn 70, but I doubt it.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!