Make No Big Plans

acornThis morning’s Chicago Tribune included an editorial cartoon by Michael P. Ramirez depicting a herd of elephants and donkeys heading off a cliff. A pair of small rodents sits on the edge of the cliff; one of them opines, “They’re giving us lemmings a bad name.”

There does seem to be a sense of doom and  inevitability. The train is headed for the end of the line and the brakes aren’t working. The engine on the airplane has gone out and we’re headed for a crash landing.

With so much wrong, societal problems that appear intractable, and institutions that people have relied on for so long falling apart, I’m hearing a sense of resignation. What is, is.  What will be will be. Deal with it.

Resignation assumes that we are victims of forces around us; we can’t do anything about them.  But I don’t believe in fatalism; I am not a victim of forces that I can’t do anything about. I don’t believe there is ever nothing we can do. We are human beings capable of action. We have agency. We can take responsibility.

So, what to do in the face of big problems? Alas, there’s the rub.  Big problems can only be solved by big plans, or so we think. When the big problems and the big plans are beyond the reach of mere mortals, hope becomes dim.

Daniel Burnham, the late 19th century and early 20th century architect who had an enormous impact on the development of downtown Chicago, famously said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

I say to hell with big plans.  Big plans are the nemesis of making progress on the hard things.

Jesus apparently was fine with little plans. Maybe little plans as small as a mustard seed; he used the tiny seed as an image for the kingdom of heaven.  Planted in small, unnoticed ways, it grows imperceptibly and becomes a tree large enough to provide a place for birds to build their nests.

I can speak up for my Muslim neighbors and friends.  I can seek dialogue with people who hold views that are different than mine. I can teach my kids to be kind. I can treat the people I work with dignity and respect. I can invite a local politician or the police chief or the elementary school superintendent  for coffee and find out what’s on their mind and let them know what’s on mine. I can invite a few neighbors over for dinner to discover who it is I’ve been saying hello to all these years. I can put my screens away occasionally and interact with people face to face, eye to eye, real voice to real voice. And I can find people who care about the things I care about and figure out together how to make some small plans.

What will you do? Who will you talk to? What action will you take?

When ordinary people make small plans that become effective action then big things are bound happen.

1 thought on “Make No Big Plans

  1. Nathan Baker-Trinity

    Jim, your reflection reminds me a lot of Wendell Berry, who is also suspicious of “big plans.” “Why not start with the ground under your feet?” he once counseled, rather than being overwhelmed. Your reflection also strikes me as solidly Lutheran, in that we work within the fallen structures of society the best we can. Attempting to transcend them negates the incarnation. Thanks for the encouragement!


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