The Best Laid Plans

January 25th is “Burns Night,” when the Scottish diaspora (and those of us who like Scotland) celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns. Burns was ahead of his time, as a democrat, feminist, humanist, and linguist. One of his most often quoted lines is, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice and Men/Gang aft agley.” (Or oft go awry, in the Anglicized version).

You can read the whole poem, To a Mouse, but the jist of it is: Burns, who was a farmer, was out plowing a field under one autumn. In the course of his efforts, he unearthed the burrow of a field mouse. Mrs. Mouse had worked long and hard to make a safe, snug winter haven for the Mouse Family, then along comes Robert, trying to keep his family safe and snug, and it’s disaster for the Mouses.

Burns was writing about what the conflict resolution professionals call “unintended consequences.” No matter how many what-ifs you think through, no matter how carefully you craft an agreement, chances are, something unforeseen will crop up, and the perfect solution will result in more problems.

This is why, in the case of any conflict of substance, imposing solutions from outside the situation generally fails in the long run. At the first opportunity, those who don’t like the decision will point to these unintended consequences as proof everlasting that the decision was wrong (even if it was objectively brilliant). Decisions made with the input of those affected tend to hold up longer, which is why judges always, always try to have parents rather than the court come up with the schedule in a custody case.

In a juvenile justice setting, a restorative justice approach makes the victim and the offender, along with their support systems, come up with the punishment and the reparation. Not surprisingly, offenders who’ve been through an RJ process have a much lower recidivism rate than in the traditional system. Victims report that RJ results in more resolution of trauma symptoms, and better attention to the damages they suffered as a result of the crime.

Beside durability, the other benefit of participatory problem-solving is that by thrashing through an issue together, learning to see the person behind the position, parties in a sticky situation usually develop some trust and respect. This can save the day when those unintended consequences pop up, as they invariably do.

Tartan, plaid seamless pattern.

Unintended consequences can be positive. I started taking riding lessons as an adult because I was badly depressed, and that was one physical activity I knew I’d get myself out of bed to pursue. Unintended consequences of that solution included making some lifelong friends, developing a big area of common ground with my daughter, and learning how to manage a large, complex competition without losing my cool.

Conflict really can be an opportunity. Have you ever been faced with unintended consequences–positive or negative? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The MacGregor’s Lady (and please consider stopping by our post-Burns Night Facebook party on Thursday evening).




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17 comments on “The Best Laid Plans

  1. As a nurse, I have experienced many instances of abusive behavior from male patients, ranging from name-calling to groping to threats of rape and other physical violence. Each time I reported these incidents, I was given excuses (“boys will be boys”) or treated with a great deal of mistrust. These reactions were troubling and infuriating but, ultimately, I was discouraged and gave up on reporting abusive behavior. I was so upset by the treatment I received at the hands of these men and my supervisors that I vowed to find a way to show women that abusive behavior can and should be reported, whether at work or home.

    This led me to begin my work with a rape crisis and domestic violence center, which has become my passion. Originally, I simply wanted to work in a position where I could help women get the resources they needed, but this work has definitely had some other unintended consequences, both positive and negative. I have become much more vocal and outspoken in general, not just about mistreatment of women and children. I tend to be more introverted, but this work has brought out a little more of my fiery side and I like that! On the other hand, I have also become more suspicious and less trusting of people, particularly men.

    • I’ve grown more fierce in my dotage too, unwilling to see my daughter handed the same choices (and non-choices) I faced thirty or forty years ago. I’m not even talking about reproductive issues, though those matter. I’m talking about workplace discrimination, wage inequality, sexual harassment, gender stereotypes, body-image baloney. The daily sand that’s thrown into every woman’s gears just because she’s a female in this society.

      We’re better than that, and if we’re not better than that we need to be.

      • Amen. My daughter is 4 years old and I can’t even count the number of nights I’ve spent worrying about the future for her. We HAVE to be better!

  2. My eldest son has autism. When he was grade school age, I found a autism support group in our community…and it was my life-line. These were other parents who understood what we were going through. We became closer to them than our own family. Though our kids often were on different parts of the autism spectrum, we had common ground and a common goal to get the best education we possibly could for our children. I eventually became the local ASA chapter president for six years.

    My son is now an adult and my issues are not the same as those with young children. I am in contact with a few of my fellow Autism Moms but we don’t see each other often any longer….I miss them!

    I still do some autism advocacy but now mentor choirs of adults with development disabilities……and believe me, this is something I had NO INTENTION of doing….and yet. I love it! 🙂

    • One of my colleagues is a D.Ed who did a lot of work with the local families facing an ASD landscape. He was frustrated, because he had so few tools to share that would “help,” and saw such slow, wobbly progress. When he comes across those families now, though, ten and twenty years later, they tell him that just being with them, just knowing what they were going through and affirming how tough it was, kept them sane. They were less alone with their burden, and there was somebody to say, “Nobody could do any better with this than you are doing. You’re not crazy, you’re not inept. This is REALLY hard.”

      So hats off to you for your advocacy, and for just being there.

      And for the music. When nothing else helps, the music hath charms…

  3. I’ve experienced and witnessed “unintended consequences” quite often in life. Often when a goal or a plan doesn’t work out, I’ve later looked back and realized that something much better has happened and it wouldn’t have if the original plan had succeeded. Ending up at one college, rather than the original target can end up introducing you to people and experiences that are the cornerstones of your life. I’ve often wondered if it was fate, luck or just the way life’s paths lead us.

    • And it’s what you do with those unintended consequences. Do you sit on a toadstool and lament that perfect solution life owed you, or learn to like the taste of lemonade–in moderation, on hot days?

  4. The biggest, most positive unintended consequence I have benefited from is meeting my husband when I took a temporary job assignment half way across the country from my home (and my verbally abusive fiance). I don’t like to even imagine where I’d be in life if I had not volunteered to take the temporary job.

    I was made aware of a positive consequence of raising our kids with the belief that it is who a person is on the inside that is important – not what they look like or where their ancestors came from. Our daughter is dating a nice young man who happens to be of Mexican descent and she has never thought about that being a big deal. However, recently several of their friends have commented on them having an interracial relationship. I hadn’t thought about it that way either until she mentioned the comments to me.

    • I find my nomenclature is out of date. When did American become a race? Mexican become a race?

      They aren’t races. This might be an intercultural marriage, but to some extent, most American marriages are that. Good on ya, for raising somebody who can sees a person rather than a nationality.

  5. My husband wanted to take a picture of myself and our two black cats. A friend came over yesterday to take pictures with his cell phone. The cats were not pleased and I hate having my picture taken. Suffice it to say, we only got one cat. I’m not sure what my husband is going to do, but I did the best I could.

    • I HATE having my picture taken, something about graven images resonating in my DNA. But if I did have my picture taken, having a couple kit-tehs in the image would make it much better experience.

  6. Well this seems a bit extreme…………but my home burned down 5 years ago on the Monday after Thanksgiving. We had lived in that house for 31 years. That was the place where my husband painted a mural on the wall when we brought our daughter home from the hospital when she was born in 1982!

    But the house was old, and since we live in Houston, the climate and weather were not kind to it. I rarely opened the blinds since there was no “view”.

    But it burned to the wooden studs. Sold the shell and moved into a light and bright apartment. I open the blinds every day.

    I am not a fool, so I cannot say that I am glad that we went thru that awful time immediately after the fire. We lost SO MUCH.

    But I also know that we would probably still be living there but for the fire. Inertia is a very powerful force!

    In the last two months my husband has had both brain and heart surgery. Keeping up with an aging house would be a difficult challenge now. So would packing up and trying to sell that house.

    So we are MUCH better off where we are now, not necessarily something I would have admitted in November of 2011.

    • I’m sorry you had to go through that. My admin and friend went through that, and yes… you mom’s recipes, the photo albums, the fave comfy sweater your aunt knitted for you. You lose a piece of your heart.

      I’m glad you’re in a manageable, comfortable space, and hope your husband is recovering well.

  7. Oh yeah! Went for flying lessons and ended up with the man who would become my ex husband and a friend for twenty-two years until our zigzag of moves around the globe finally caused us to lose track of one another.

    Is there a way to sign up for notifications of your blog posts other than Goodreads? I’m probably missing something really obvious, but I’d rather come to you direct rather than through a third party.