One of the more interesting facets of the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the all-time great authors in British history, has nothing to do with his well-known books or his massive success as an author. Instead, before iconic characters like Sherlock Holmes and legendary titles like “The Lost World,” there was a failed life as a small-town physician.
As a young man, Doyle never would have imagined becoming one of the best-known authors in the history of English literature. Rather, at age 17, Doyle enrolled in the University of Edinburgh Medical School, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees in 1881. After a brief stint as a physician aboard the Greenland Whaler and four more years earning his doctor medicine degree, Doyle and a classmate, George Turnavine Budd, opened a medical practice in Plymouth, England.
It didn’t take long for his partnership with Budd to collapse, and in 1882, with only £10 to his name, he opened his own practice in the village of Southsea. The practice wasn’t successful, to the point that, for months, Doyle spent the majority of his days sitting and waiting for patients and dabbling in an old college hobby, writing fiction. During these long lonely days in a tiny failing medical office in Southsea, England, the legendary Sherlock Holmes was born.
We’ve probably all heard the saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” so much so that no one is exactly sure who first said it. Wherever the thought first came from, though, there’s a lot of truth to it. I can plan and scheme and work out every minute detail of my life in my mind, but as soon as I step out into the world, all my planning and scheming invariably comes crashing down. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to a large crowd on a hillside, and he directs their attention to a group of birds.
“They neither sow nor reap,” Jesus says. “Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
When I read these words, I hear Jesus telling me, “Don’t worry so much about your plans. Don’t agonize over every little detail. Fix your eyes on what is good and right; ask, ‘How can I contribute to the world around me in this moment?’ and let the details work themselves out as you go.”
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t plan and prepare at all. Doyle wasn’t wrong to spend more than a decade of his life training in medicine, but the key is to know that, in all my plans and preparations, it is God’s plan, not mine, that is going to go forward. This might stress me out — God is under no obligation to clue me in on where this whole thing is going — but I also believe it can be liberating.
Knowing this means I don’t have to have everything figured out. It means I can roll with the punches and make a call on the fly if I need to. Most importantly, it means that it’s OK if my plan gets derailed because it was never really my project in the first place. My supposed failures and missteps aren’t the end of the world. They might derail what I have planned for my life, but they can’t derail God.
In Proverbs 3, there is a beautiful little verse that I think is helpful here: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” the author writes. “In all your ways, acknowledge God, and God will direct your paths.”
Whether you’re just starting out in life, or you’ve been getting punched in the mouth for decades, it’s a beautiful thought. What do you do if you’re just starting out to make sure your life starts out on the right track? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge God, and God will direct your paths.”
If you’ve been at it for decades, taken every wrong turn, and made every conceivable mistake, how do you begin to find the road back? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding...” You know the rest.
It’s not magic. You probably won’t hear an audible voice or find everything immediately beginning to fall into place. But as you begin to acknowledge God and orient your life around divine principles like justice, righteousness and compassion, I believe you will begin to find direction and purpose. You might not get where you had always wanted to go in life, but you’ll probably end up where you were supposed to be. And wherever you end up, you’ll have the freedom to see the possibilities life puts in front of you along the way.
Imagine if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had failed to do that? Imagine if he had been so committed to his plan that he missed out on the possibilities life brought along the way? Sherlock Holmes would never have seen the light of day. He would have stayed trapped inside the mind of a failing physician, himself trapped inside the ruins of a failed dream to practice medicine on the south coast of England.