Tell Her Your Plans

“If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.” Religion aside, this says a lot about the way of the world.

I read this quote recently in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and it punched me in the gut. Every now and then, a writer can put into words a thought or an ideal which is unconsciously at the center of my being. And seeing it spelled out is an overwhelming, cathartic experience.

In the case of this phrase, I don’t think you need to believe in God to appreciate its meaning. Call it the Force or The Universe or just the way of the world if you prefer.

This idea is about treating the world as a process rather than a set of static objects. (Credit for these words belongs to Joe Panzner’s The Process that is the World). To make plans is to prefigure your path in a way that it may or may not turn out. Planning attempts to render the vast, dynamic chaos of the universe into something immobile and dead. This is not to say planning is futile but that plans must be made in pencil so that we can remain open to the world (or God if you prefer) as it happens.

Now, as a person who is, in some ways, addicted to planning, routine, and futurism, I am perhaps an unlikely candidate to be preaching the gospel of “live in the moment.” But I think it is possible to make plans in a way that you can stay open to unexpected experiences.

After all, the quote doesn’t say that God will tell you to give up on your plans. The image of God in this context, for me, looks more like an amused someone who knows more than me, not someone discouraging me.

I know that I can plan a backpacking trip and I can plan many details of it. But I can’t anticipate, for example, the people we will meet, the weather, the number of viable tent sites at camp, or our interactions with animals. Any of these factors has a chance to dramatically alter the experience of our trip but they are the things which could never be planned for.

Similarly, when performing music, I can plan what pieces I am going to play and I might even plan some of my interpretation. But for everything I prefigure, there is an infinity of contingencies that could also arise.

I make plans all the time, I love making them. And I can tell God or the Universe my plans all I want, but they will never be a true reflection of my life as it will actually play out. And I have had to come to accept this. But it isn’t depressing or anxiety-inducing for me. And when it is, I have to remind myself to stay open to the process that is my life and the world around me.

When I tell myself my plans, I have to laugh at them right alongside God.


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