“If you want to make God laugh…”

I really hate the saying “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”.

Maybe it’s a melancholic thing, but like the idea that “God is testing you”, I feel it places thoroughly unlikable anthropomorphic qualities on what is, for me, sacred.

“God is laughing at you while you’re doing your best” is how I take it. And by implication, the person who kindly shares this nugget of wisdom is taking some vicarious pleasure in God’s wry view of your struggles.

And as for “God is testing you”, try: “God isn’t sure about you, so he’s giving you an arbitrary kick in the guts just to see how you take it.”


Some people might get a kick out of that (I’m told some Cholerics love to feel they’re rising to a challenge) but for a melancholic, arbitrary changes in the game do not go down so well.

If God is testing me, then he’s always testing me. If God is blessing me, then he’s always blessing me.

For some people the path is straight and narrow, and for others the burden has to be light and the way easy.

But that’s not really what this post is about. Plans, yes. Theology, no.

We’ll leave that topic with the observation that the original Yiddish is more succinct, and more importantly it rhymes:

Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht

Which apparently means “man thinks, God laughs”.

Why does God laugh? Better to ask why we need to be told that God laughs.

We need to be told, because we often find that our plans go awry, and our thoughts betray us.

Since I’m working on “positive thinking” at the moment, I thought I’d take a closer look at the relationship between desires and conditions, and how the former makes us feel good, while the latter makes us feel bad.

Desires make you feel good, conditions make you feel bad.

I’ve been following a forum where people are discussing positive thinking material, and what often happens is that people join up with a desire that they want fulfilled, something they describe as a deep yearning and source of joy, yet at the same time an obvious source of misery.

What’s going on in these people (and in most of us) is that they’ve identified something they want, desire, or prefer, and this naturally makes them feel good at the thought of it.

But we tend not to stop there. We tend to include in that desire or preference other conditions. We set conditions in part because we think “this is how the world works”, but moreso because the conditions tend to deflate and diminish our desire until it matches how we already feel.

For example, if I’m miserable living in a small house, I’d understandably have a corresponding positive desire for a bigger house to live in.

This desire is a good thing, and it should be a source of inspiration, hopefulness, and enjoyment. I can feel good thinking about a bigger house even though my house is still small.

However, since I’m already feeling miserable in my small house, this implies I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on things that make me feel bad.

Maybe I spend ten or so minutes each day shaking my head in frustration at lack of space, or thinking in disappointment of all the things I can’t do due to space constraints.

It’s not easy to practice feeling frustrated and disappointed, and then practice feeling inspiration, hope and enjoyment.

That’s why I’ll most likely view my desire for a bigger house through the lens of my negative thoughts and feelings about my current circumstances.

Instead of feeling good about the thing I desire – a bigger house – I’ll find a way to feel bad about it. I’ll turn it into “the bigger house I can’t afford”, or “the bigger house I need right now” or “the bigger house in the right suburb”.

It might seem like I’m being realistic in my desires, or more specific, but in fact I’m adding conditions to what I desire in order to make me feel worse about it; in order to resist it.

Thinking about a bigger house feels good, because it is a naturally arising desire or preference brought about in response to my present situation.

Thinking about the associated conditions feels bad, and is in fact totally unnecessary.

How to separate desires from conditions

The way to separate desires or preferences from the conditions we impose on them is to work out what you really want and why you want it.

It’s amazing how far we can delude ourselves about what we really want.

According to the positive thinking material, we only ever want anything because we think it will make us feel better. So as a reductionist answer we could say that all we really want is to feel better, and if setting conditions makes us feel worse, we should stop doing that.

But we can also use this “feeling better” idea to understand what aspects of our desired outcomes are real, and what aspects are false conditions we’ve imposed.

So for example, what is it about a bigger house that will make me feel better?

Is it really just about space?

Unlikely, because even in our very small house we haven’t made efficient use of the available space!

In fact there are a number of little themes tied in to it.

Feelings of ease, of being settled, of having “made it”, of having something to show for oneself, of being more hospitable, of being able to explore various skills and hobbies, of having more beautiful surroundings to relax in, of being able to build fun things…

So the actual desire is not as straightforward as it seemed. It seems that only a fraction of it is about a house per se, and much more of it is about how I see myself or how others might see me.

Why your current situation is ‘perfect’

Ironically, the desire for a house turned out to be partly a genuine desire, and partly a condition set for other, unrelated, desires.

For example, I might want to be more hospitable, but being a disorganised person living in a small house means I’ll either have to do a lot of tidying every time people come over, or learn not to care about having a messy house.

More directly, is there really any reason I can’t feel “settled” now, regardless of the size of our house? Why does “settled” mean “unmoving”? Plenty of people move house numerous times in their lives and it never stops them feeling “settled”.

The same goes for feeling at ease, feeling like I’ve “made it” (what does that even mean to me?), and feeling like I have something to show for myself.

The truth is that these are things you can feel already. They’re actually not related to objective outcomes like home-ownership. They’re subjective, and we decide for ourselves the conditions we put on them.

And the irony is that if you don’t let yourself feel any accomplishment at your minor achievements, you’ll probably never let yourself achieve something “major” by your own estimation.

If you reject here and now subjective feelings of ease, being settled, or feeling comfortable with your own choices and accomplishments, then you will definitely sabotage any attempts to really “earn” those feelings.

Because the feelings can’t be earned. They come easily and naturally for people who aren’t hung up about them…just like the other things that come easily and naturally to you, the things you likely take for granted even though others struggle with them.

The truth is that your current situation is ‘perfect’, because it matches how you feel about yourself already.

The conditions you set upon your desires are ways of stopping you from achieving them…you make your desires “impossible” or “unlikely” or “out of reach” because you’ve already decided that the corresponding good feelings are out of reach for you.

So work out what you really want, and why you want it. Look at how you really want to feel, and see that you can feel most – if not all – of it right now, without regard for the conditions you tried to set for feeling good.


Self-will gets in the Way

“People often say, “We have goodwill.” Theirs is not God’s will, though; they want to have their own way and dictate to God to do so and so. That is not goodwill. We must find out from God what his will is. Broadly speaking, what God wills is that we should give up willing…

There is no making of a proper man without surrender of the will. In fact, unless we give up our will without reserve, we cannot work with God at all. But suppose it came about that we did give up our own will altogether and had the heart to rid ourselves of every single thing inside and out for God, then we would have accomplished everything, and not before.  Of such people few are to be found. Knowingly or unknowingly they want something definite, some experience of higher things. They are set on this condition or that boon. It is nothing whatever but self-will. Abandon to God altogether your self and all things without any qualms as to what he will do with his own…

There is no true and perfect will until, entering wholly into God’s will, a man has no will of his own.”

Meister Eckhart

It’s been a long time since I read any of Eckhart, but I opened him today to this section and it reminded me immediately of my recent reading of Wang Bi’s commentary on the Daodejing or Laozi:

An attitude [corresponding to] the capacity of the hollow is the only means to follow the Way.
Hollow means empty. Only having taken being empty as [one’s] capacity will one then be able to act in accordance with the Way.

That’s just one line, but if I quote more of it I’ll never get to bed tonight.  The Way is “empty” yet it guides and nourishes things according to their nature. For humans to return to the Way, we should likewise empty ourselves and be without contrived action; then we will act in accordance with our nature.

The difficulty of this is hard to overstate, but is most evident when, as Eckhart notes, we set ourselves on particular conditions, paying lip-service to the Way or the divine Will, whilst clinging nonetheless to our own will.

There needs to be an element of trust that in abandoning self-will and the outcomes or ideals we covet, we are in fact abandoning obstacles to the fulfillment of our nature.  Sometimes the goals we have in mind are simply wrong for us – they will not bring the satisfaction they seem to promise. But even when the goals are good, noble, and true, we still miss out on the higher goal of surrender.

I suspect this might be the meaning of “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Likewise “the man of highest virtue never acts, yet nothing is left undone.”

But that can mean embracing the reality of circumstances that seem to deny your deepest hopes and dreams; worse – it means dragging your deepest hopes and dreams into the light of a faith that will feel too cold and too harsh for the delicate fantasies of your self-will.

There are undoubtedly consolations to be had after the fact, but this is beside the point; the point is that no matter how good and alluring our dreams and desires may be, if we cannot abandon them for the sake of the divine will, the Way, then we are merely clinging to burdens of our own creation.