What will you be doing in 2024?
If you think you know for sure, you're either clairvoyant or deluded.
I've been thinking about this question since President Joe Biden's recent news conference in which he was asked whether he plans to run again in 2024. This was the same news conference in which not a single reporter asked about the pandemic or the economy.
The 2024 question deserved all the eye rolls it got — c'mon, man, the guy's been president for two months. Yet Biden's answer — yes — was treated as big news because in the game of politics the future always matters more than the present. Politicians and the people who cover them are always eyeing the next election, the next fight.
But forget Biden's presidential plans for a moment. Let's talk about the most noteworthy part of his answer to the 2024 question, a remark that went largely unremarked. It's what he said after he said yes.
"I'm a great respecter of fate," he said. "I've never been able to plan four and a half, three and a half years ahead for certain."
Wise words. We all should all be great respecters of fate.
Fate can be defined in various ways. In a broad way, it means the things that happen to us unavoidably, through forces beyond our control.
Biden's life is a spectacular example of how potent fate can be. He had just been elected to the U.S. Senate when his first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash. He was poised to run for president in 2016 but changed his mind after his son Beau died of cancer. When he announced he would run in 2020, it seemed unlikely that this old white guy, as he was often called, could get elected.
Then he did. And he brings to the job the perspective of someone who knows that after you hope and plan and dream, fate may snatch your plans, crumple them into a ball, toss them in the toilet and cap it off with a cruel chuckle.
Over and over, in the big realms and in our personal lives, the force we call fate outwits predictions and expectations. Consider politics.
How many people believed in 2005 that Barack Obama, a Black newly elected U.S. Senator with an unusual name and no national reputation, would be elected president in 2008? And until it happened, how many of us failed to believe Donald Trump would be president?
In fact, most of the presidents in my lifetime have seemed surprising until they became inevitable. A Georgia peanut farmer? An Arkansas governor? No way. Until fate said, "Way."
Fate tricks us in ways beyond the political, too. Pandemic, anyone? Some savvy epidemiologists weren't entirely surprised, but the rest of us never saw it coming. Sometimes what we call fate wouldn't be outside our control if only we saw more clearly.
Think about your own life three and a half years ago. On some level, it may seem not so long ago, time that passed as quickly as the click of a computer key. But try to remember about how you envisioned what you'd be doing in 2021. It wasn't this, was it?
All of us can look back on our lives and see the moments when fate yanked our plans away. The sudden death of someone we love. The loss of a job. The end of a relationship. A disease, our own or someone else's. The longer you live, the more you know how quickly life can change.
And the longer you live, the murkier the time ahead may seem, even though it seems to come faster. A friend talks about his feelings when he gets a new driver's license or credit card and notices the distant expiration date.
"Hmm," he thinks, "four years from now, will I even be alive? Will I have the same job? What will my kids be doing?"
I feel that way every time I fill in an online form for my new credit card and type in the expiration date of 1/26. What? 2026? Whatever I imagine it will be, it will probably be something else.
Planning and hoping are built into our brains. That's part of what makes us human. We envision the future, and by envisioning it we help to build the life we want.
But even as we look ahead, a week, a year, a decade, it helps to remember that fate is bound to take us somewhere we did not imagine.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.