“An individual dies when he ceases to be surprised.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel
Many of us yearn for a smooth, predictable life. We establish routines and systems to get things done and wish we’d never be interrupted. Yet what do we get if that wish is realized? As much as we try to avoid surprises, what if surprise is the very life of life? The zest? The opening to meaning? Stephen Batchelor makes a case for a different kind of serene life, where “every detail of life, every person you meet, every situation you find yourself in, is one that, in a sense, is deeply surprising, deeply odd.” Like Heschel in the opening quote, Batchelor suggests we notice surprises, even cultivate them, to be fully alive.
Here are some everyday surprises I’ve noticed:
- The sun comes up – and looks different – every day. Today was a surprising pink and purple.
- The first sip of morning coffee surprises and delights first my tongue and then all of me! Every day.
- I go to the Chinese grocery store and am surprised by all the veggies I don’t know.
Surprise is at the heart of humor. When my parents were in their 90’s I called them every evening – across 3 time zones – and shared a silly joke. Their days had become smooth and predictable, almost tedious. I would share experiences from my life, but the things they most relished were the jokes. “What did the number 0 say to the number 8? Nice Belt!” My dad’s loud belly laugh would erupt over the phone. “I like being surprised,” he’d say.
Humor is all about being caught off guard. Surprised. So is creativity….both the process and the product. My 7-year-old granddaughter, Fianna, loves art projects. She dreams them up, and has no idea what they will become (nor does she much care.) She loves the process. I love a good painting or piece of music because it grabs me. Interrupts me. Invites me to see more or differently.
“There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved,” says Charles Morgan. This is the bare, beautiful truth. And the other astonishment is that no matter how well we know and love someone, they can still surprise us. After my husband Gene died, I often knew exactly what he might say in certain situations; hearing his voice in my head comforted me. What I missed most was the way he had surprised me, with a quirky way of seeing something, a startling thought.
Which brings us to the reality that surprises aren’t always happy. People we love will die; we witness injustice; we receive an unexpected diagnosis. Still – the surprise creates an opening in us.
I had cancer. All my routines were interrupted. I was scared. I faced death up close and personal. This was totally new territory. Now, nearly 6 lucky years later, I see the gift that cancer was. More people loved and supported me than I would ever have imagined. Cancer made me more patient, compassionate, appreciative of small things, like a child’s giggle, and good health.
“Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.” Henri Nouwen
The experience of surprise is a gift, even a virtue. To stay fully alive, maybe we need to:
- Notice what is surprising
- Embrace the surprises in our day
- Cultivate surprises
- Share surprises
- What surprised you today?
- Look around. What is surprising in your environment?
- From whom have you received the magical surprise of love?
- How can you surprise someone you love?
- What is the deepest surprise you can remember? How did it change you?