Don't be surprised by surprises

No matter how hard we try, we can't plan for every curveball life throws at us.

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An old saying claims, "There's nothing new under the sun." Whenever you're faced with a difficult situation, it's reassuring to think that someone else in the world has already confronted the same dilemma and found a solution.

I hate to pop anybody's bubble, but that old saying is bilge. While it's true that many elements of the world around us are predictable and manageable, there will always be surprises that test our ability to adapt.

I know how disconcerting it feels to be caught up in stressful circumstances that are totally unfamiliar. One way of trying to minimize the anxiety is by searching for a precedent, something you can use as a model for resolving the crisis. A model can lead to a plan of action, and plans are good for morale because they give us the feeling of having control over the future.

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The Bush administration recently suggested that the US troop presence in South Korea could serve as a model for the nation's long-term military goals in Iraq. Opponents of the war say that America's experience in Vietnam is a more accurate forecast of what lies ahead. But similarities alone do not create a model.

Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq all have their own cultural and political context. You can't analyze the history of nations as if they're laboratory experiments. The world is in constant motion, circumstances change constantly, and new ideas resonate among populations.

In America, one of the most compelling ideas we've been hearing for the past 50 years is "Take charge of your life!" How-to books are bestsellers. While I think it's great to be organized, set goals, and be your own boss, one annoying reality of life is that you can't plan for everything. Someday you may be forced to deal with a scenario that has no blueprint or operating manual.

During my years as a TV news writer, one of the daily routines was a staff meeting after the 6 p.m. broadcast to review the show and discuss glitches that occurred. My supervisors wanted a mistake-free program every night, and we never reached that pinnacle. New problems always popped up.

Cameras malfunctioned, videotape went missing, reporters got stuck in traffic, and the clock always ticked down to air time. The best producers I worked with didn't panic, whine, or try to find someone to blame. They just figured out a way to keep going.

Occasionally their decisions turned out badly and that would cause the post-production meeting to run longer. But even after scrutinizing a problem from every angle, there were times when the only useful solution anyone could offer was, "Let's all hope that never happens again."

A lot of pundits describe life as an athletic field, with players maneuvering to score points. I prefer a culinary metaphor. To me every day is like walking into a kitchen. And just because a casserole came out great once doesn't mean that result is guaranteed.

There will always be occasions when the recipe doesn't work. Fleeing the kitchen isn't an option. Rise to the challenge. Maybe you'll discover a solution based on your own experience. Maybe you should think about writing your own cookbook.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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