"Life is what happens while you’re planning for something else."
"Life is what happens while you’re planning for something else." Some years ago, I saw that little observation on a turquoise-colored t-shirt; and partly because of the message and partly because of the pert young woman whose upper body was the proud bearer of that message, I managed to remember it.
This morning in the news I read about Shiv Charan Yadav, a farmer in India, who almost four decades ago vowed not to marry until he passed his high school exams. He just failed the exams, which are given annually, for the 38th time. Shiv is now 73. He was only in his 30s when he decided to better himself through education.
Already Shiv is starting to prepare for the next exams. Once he passes the exams he would like to find a girl to marry him, a girl about 30, a good age for the age of the man when he first began taking the exams back in 1969. Shiv still lives alone, in the remote village of Kohari in the western desert state of Rajasthan. Life has "happened" to Shiv while he was planning for something else.
Stanley Pankowski, a commodities broker in Denver, Colorado, told me that until recently he had a client who, over the past five years traded nothing but sugar contracts. His client would call Stanley and say something like, "Stanley, Harry here…buy me five March sugars at the market." Stanley would execute and confirm the orders but never offer advice because Harry had told him when he opened the account that he himself wanted to call all the shots. At the end of each year Harry usually about broke even, which for commodity traders is not so bad considering that statistically over 80% of commodity traders lose money, sometimes lots of it.
In the last couple of years, Harry’s voice got weaker and weaker. His wife confided to Stanley that Harry had cancer and did not have long to live, but also that it was fine with her that he continue to trade sugar contracts. Toward the end Harry was in the hands of Hospice and was confined to a bed in a home for the terminally ill. Still, every morning Harry called Stanley, often with a new order, but now in a voice that sounded very old: "Stanley…Harry…Harry here…sell...five July sugars …thanks…Stanley." A couple of hours before Harry died, he called Stanley and in a voice that was now only a wisp struggled through what were almost his last words, "Stanley…Harry Jordan here…buy me five October sugars."
Early that afternoon Harry’s widow called with the news of his death and asked Stanley to close out the account. She told Stanley that Harry opened the account when he was first diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago because he wanted to leave her a rich woman. They had always been comfortable but Harry wanted to test himself against the market. Commodity trading quickly became his passion. He was only interested in sugar. He read books and articles about the history of sugar. He studied how it fluctuated in relation to weather, to war, to international politics, to the forces of supply and demand, even in relationship to high fructose corn syrup.
Harry now hopped out of bed with enthusiasm each morning, although he knew beyond doubt he was slowly dying, and sat down at the kitchen table. As he meditatively stirred sugar into his coffee, he studied the Wall Street Journal and his Commodity Trader magazine. Not wanting to leave his wife, whom he now affectionately called "Sugar," and now not wanting to leave the fascinating world of sugar, Harry managed to live three years beyond the most favorable prediction of any of his oncologists.
When Stanley closed Harry’s account he said it was "within a buck or two of where he started." Harry’s speculations didn’t produce the fortune he was planning for, but he found a passion. Life happened to him, and at the side of his loving wife he lived sweetly those remaining years.
We may not have suffered the misfortunes of the farmer in India who failed his high school exams for the 38th time and, incredibly, who still has the almost heroic heart to try it a 39th time. We may not have experienced the passion of Harry to understand one thing well, in Harry’s case so damn well it would, he at least imagined, make him rich. But some secret part of us probably can identify with that farmer in India, already beginning to prepare for next year’s exam, or with Harry, with only two hours to live, still doing what had given him so much joy, with no financial re-ward whatsoever, for the final five years of his life. Life continues "to happen" to all of us regardless of our longings and our plans.