When Things Don’t Go As Planned

“I don’t mind a good fight. For reasons known only to God, I’ve had quite a few tough ones in my life. But I learned an important lesson along the way: In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test.”

– Senator John McCain

Hi, how was your weekend?

I don’t know about you, but for me there was something deliciously normal about celebrating Memorial Day Weekend. Sure, it wasn’t really normal (far from it, in fact), but the simple act of celebrating a national holiday was for me a welcome reprieve from the infinite loop that is post-COVID life.

And it seemed especially fitting that the holiday to celebrate was Memorial Day. What better time to honor those who died for our country than now, when life has slowed down and we are (hopefully) more appreciative of those things we took for granted only a few months ago?

That was the good that came from this weekend. Of course, the bad and the ugly couldn’t be avoided, in spite of my best-laid plans.

This strange bug jumped on me before the weekend started. Was it a sign I should have Googled?

Last week, we decided at the last minute to get out of our house and rent a cabin in the Georgia mountains for the holiday weekend. We would practice all COVID-related precautions by minimizing highway stops through healthy dehydration, bringing everything we could possibly need to eat, and disinfecting all surfaces upon arrival. I found a rental that seemed perfect for us and our dog, Arthur, to relax and disconnect from an especially chaotic world. Great plan, right?

It seemed like it to me, anyway, and the ride up only boosted my confidence in our decision to get away. The eight-hour drive went smoothly thanks to a quarantine silver lining: no traffic. And because we knew we would lose cell service as we went farther into the mountains, we printed out directions to “Sleepy Hollow Cabin”. The 2000s-era exercise reminded me of using MapQuest back when I first started driving, and I was already excited about the prospect of a forced separation from my phone and all of its dopamine-producing apps.

We’re talking real mountain country. (Arthur shown for size comparison.)

As we rolled up the gravel road around 1 a.m., we finally came to a small wooden house with a quaint front porch surrounded by thick forest. A large, wooly German Shepherd ran up and began circling our truck, dancing in and out of the headlights. It was late and we were tired, but we couldn’t be imagining that dog, right? And what’s that car doing parked in the single space in front of the porch?

To spare you the contact stress of the events that ensued, I’ll just say that an error on the booking website meant that we would not be staying in “Sleepy Hollow” that night, or anytime that weekend. If I’m being perfectly honest, I should have caught the error by checking before we took the eight-hour drive, or by checking when I printed out the rental agreement, or even by taking a longer glance at the confirmation email. But alas, I did not, and we found ourselves in a small German-themed mountain town searching for a pet-friendly place to stay at 1:30 a.m.

Fortunately, my extremely competent husband pleaded our way into a Holiday Inn Express, and after carrying all of the food inside to shove tetris-style into the mini fridge, we all passed out after 2 a.m.

This is the little Bavarian-style town in the daytime. Much more charming than at 1 a.m.

Although I kept it together (for the most part, anyway), I have to admit that before going to sleep and upon waking up, I was distraught. How could I have made such a terrible mistake? Can we salvage this weekend and find another place to stay? Or, more likely, will everything be booked so that our only choice will be to pack everything back up and spend the day driving home?

While my husband made lemonade by waking early and cycling the mountainous route he had planned all week, I took Arthur for a walk outside of the hotel. I headed towards a wooded area, thinking that we both would benefit from some time surrounded by trees.

Groggy and exhausted, we both seemed to move in a zombie-like state. Once we got there, I realized it wasn’t a forest at all–the trees we saw were lining a river. There were a few fly fishermen sleepily rambling from their trucks to the riverbed, but otherwise the water and surroundings were empty. Happily, Arthur and I walked in solitude upstream along an earthy path, breathing in the verdant mountain air and exhaling the stresses of the hours before. Staring into the clear rushing freshwater, I knew we needed to find a way to stay and soak up as much of this feeling as possible.

It reminded me a of a river where my friends and I spent summers when I was growing up.

Back at the Holiday Inn, I got on the horn and went to work. After searching and calling and begging, I found a place that had one small cabin left, and it was just four miles away. Did the website look like it hadn’t been updated since 2003? Maybe. And did it also look fairly outdated and corny as a result? Without a doubt. But the woman who owned the cabins sounded trustworthy and kind, and perhaps most important, they allowed dogs. Arthur was welcome, the photos didn’t look too awful, and the reviews were positive, so that was good enough for me.

It wasn’t what we had planned, but the cabin had what we needed: a clean shower, somewhat comfortable bed, mini-fridge, grill and campfire, plus some other things we could have done without. Would we choose to go to this cabin again? Probably not, if another option were available. But especially after my original plans blew up before me, I was grateful to have this cabin as Plan B. It was wonderfully refreshing to disconnect from technology and reconnect with the natural world, and as there was no wifi and limited cell service, this cabin certainly made sure we did plenty of both.

While it was a sufficiently dramatic weekend for all involved, it was only a long weekend. Most of us can handle an unexpected downturn when we know it will be short-lived. But what happens when the plans aren’t just for a weekend, but for your entire life and career? Can we pick up the pieces and find a suitable alternative, maybe one that is better for us, even if we wouldn’t have chosen it for ourselves?

This week, our purpose-driven life answers this question and also offers irrefutable evidence that we have it within ourselves to remain resilient, regardless of how long-lasting or how catastrophic the wrench in our plans appears to be. Can the incredible life of Senator John McCain help us to be more resilient both in this pandemic and in our fight to fight our purpose? Let’s find out.

John McCain was born at a U.S. Naval Air Station on the Panama Canal in 1936. His father was a naval officer who, like McCain’s grandfather, had graduated from the Naval Academy. With his father taking various Naval postings, McCain moved frequently throughout his childhood, attending 20 different schools before graduating high school.

After high school, McCain followed the path set by his father and grandfather by attending the Naval Academy. He was a decent student with a high IQ, but his habit of challenging authority lead him to graduate with a class ranking of 894 out of 899. Upon graduation, McCain followed what he assumed to be his calling by joining the Navy. He trained for two years at Pensacola to become a naval aviator and then received his first assignment flying ground-attack aircraft aboard carriers in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. He was known initially as an average pilot who could be reckless at times, as he crashed and flew into power lines during missions in the 1960s.

McCain at the Naval Academy in 1954

In 1967, McCain requested his first combat assignment, which brought him into the Vietnam War. After narrowly escaping an electrical fire that exploded his aircraft carrier, injuring him and many others, McCain immediately volunteered for another assignment. He joined the USS Oriskany and began executing bombing missions in North Vietnam. During one of his missions, McCain’s aircraft was shot down by a missile, and he was taken prisoner of war.

McCain broke both of his arms and his legs when he parachuted into a lake in North Vietnam, and he almost drowned before being captured. His enemies interrogated, beat, and tortured him. After receiving some medical attention once his captors learned that his father was then an admiral, McCain was transported to another camp and then left in solitary confinement for two years.

Lt. McCain (front right) in 1965

At that point, his grandfather was commander of all American forces in Vietnam, so the Vietnamese offered to release McCain as a propaganda stunt. However, McCain refused to go home, saying that he would only do so if every other soldier captured before him could as well. He was brutalized even more as a result of this defiance, and the torture brought McCain to the brink of suicide. He persisted, however, and survived over five years of imprisonment before returning to the U.S. in 1973.

“We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears.”

-McCain

After leaving Vietnam, McCain still had aspirations of a decorated career in the Navy. He completed extensive rehabilitation and soon became Commanding Officer of a Florida training squadron. He was successful in that role and went on to serve as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. In the years that followed, however, McCain realized that his dream of following family tradition by becoming an admiral would not be in the cards for him. Consequently, McCain decided to retire from the Navy as a captain in 1981.

Losing the future he had been working towards his entire life could have completely derailed McCain, but instead he pivoted and dove into a new arena. After his retirement, he moved to Arizona and dedicated himself to politics. McCain quickly became a U.S. Representative before running for Senate and subsequently spending 31 years as a Senator of Arizona.

McCain in 1983, during his first term in the House of Representatives

During his tenure, McCain unsuccessfully ran for President twice, but he showed resilience in serving unapologetically in the Senate after each loss. He also prided himself on voting his conscience and employing a more bipartisan style of politicking, which became more scarce as the years went by.

In 2017, McCain was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer during his sixth term. He underwent brain surgery and then returned to the Senate just two weeks later in order to vote against a bill that he did not believe in, but his party favored. There, he used his platform to speak against the partisanship and party-line voting that had become commonplace in Washington. In 2018 after the cancer treatments failed, John McCain passed away at the age of 82.

Regardless of your opinions of his politics, most everyone would agree that John McCain left a legacy that will endure on for years to come. But what can we learn from McCain’s fight to find his purpose as a maverick who uses defiance to serve the greater good?

His resilience and ability to adapt were certainly instrumental throughout his journey, but I think it goes deeper than that. I believe the most compelling message from John McCain’s life is that dwelling on our painful past or on our unrealized dreams for the future will not enable us to find and live our true purpose.

McCain endured unimaginable physical, emotional, and mental pain during his imprisonment. He also suffered blows to his ego in retiring without becoming an admiral and in failing to become president, both dreams he was desperate to attain. And yet, by gritting through the traumatic experiences and public failures without holding onto bitterness towards his captors, resentment towards his political adversaries, or disappointment for a future that never materialized, he was able to achieve what we all seek: a fulfilling, purpose-driven life.

“What God and good luck provide we must accept with gratitude. Our time is our time. It’s up to us to make the most of it, make it amount to more than the sum of our days.”

-McCain

While I would never try to compare staying in a one-bedroom cabin for two nights to spending five years as a prisoner of war or running alongside Sarah Palin, I do think that how we handle everyday disappointments and setbacks can help us build our own resilience and grit. Hopefully, none of us will ever need these skills to the degree that John McCain demonstrated, but I have to believe if we can build them, they will also be instrumental as we follow our own path to find our purpose.

One thought on “When Things Don’t Go As Planned

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: