“Surprise: To cause to feel wonder, astonishment, or amazement (as at something unanticipated).”
Way back in the winter, my girlfriend Malve told me to reserve a particular day in June. “Block the whole day off,” she said. “And the night before too.” She told me she had a surprise planned for me, but didn’t give me any hints.
I was mostly very excited about this, but as the day grew closer, I found my mind clamouring for information. I had no idea where we were going or what we would be doing or who we would be seeing. The whole experience (and don’t worry, I’ll tell you what it was in a minute!) made me realize how much I usually mentally prepare for things. This is helpful for things like job interviews, where anticipating the questions and rehearsing answers can help you feel more comfortable and confident. But in other situations, I have a sneaking suspicion that plotting and planning things out in advance is something akin to trying to control what happens.
Malve made all the arrangements: where we were staying overnight, where we were going out for supper, and the main event of the next day. I didn’t have to do a thing but be in the moment and enjoy the experience as it all unfolded.
It was, however, very interesting to watch myself try and figure out the surprise! As the car started heading for the ocean on that day in June, I began quickly flipping through a list of possible seaside surprises. A boat ride? Sea kayaking? Whale watching? I realized that part of the reason I was trying to accurately guess was so I could be appropriately “surprised.” I didn’t want to have the “wrong” reaction to something that was so thoughtful and so well planned.
This worry used to be so pronounced that for a time I told partners or friends to please never throw me a surprise birthday party. I was convinced that in the absence of time to prepare an appropriate reaction, I would somehow mess up and disappoint the person who was throwing the party.
This desire to predict or anticipate what will happen and be prepared is a natural human quality, I think, and is linked to a fear of being vulnerable. Our mental preparations make us feel safe, but likely keep us from a lot of spontaneity and joy.
“Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.”
On that Saturday in June, when we pulled up in front of a horse stable right on the ocean, and I realized I would be fulfilling a longtime dream of riding a horse on a beach, I also saw how good it was that this had been a total surprise. If not, I might have spent some time wondering if I would remember how to ride (last time was when I was 13!) and fearing that I might fall off. I likely would have googled the name of the stable and the owner’s bio, and I would definitely have looked up photos – all things that would have given me a pretty good picture of what was going to happen and cushioned me going into this new adventure.
Instead, I had the very beautiful experience of everything being completely fresh and new. There was a sense of raw invigoration and intense and sudden “aliveness.” There is no better word. I felt acutely alive and open to this thing that I had not planned and therefore could not prepare for.
Sometimes, this complete loss of control can feel scary. But on this occasion, I likened it to the trust game we played as children, where you fall backwards into another’s arms, fully believing you will be caught. That day, I felt like I was caught and held in the arms of a beautiful and unanticipated experience when I met and spent a few hours with the amazing Alison Mackay-Lyons, of Sea Horse Farm, equine animal doctor and horse riding teacher extraordinaire, and the calm and steady horse that she has had since childhood, Cody. All the details were taken care of, including the sunshine on the beach that morning. All that was left for me to do was enjoy the ride (literally!).
I remember meeting a woman once who had crossed our entire country in a VW van without the aid of maps or guidebooks, using her intuition alone. She told me that she would follow her gut for literally every decision: where to turn, who to talk to, where to stay for the night. Every day was chock full of surprises that she couldn’t mentally prepare for.
This story has stayed with me, likely because I have longed for that kind of spontaneity and freedom, but also because of how little uncharted territory there seems to be anymore.
Think about it. Information about every corner of the globe is available at our fingertips. There are no new species of animals, there are no undiscovered lands. We get restaurant reviews on our phones, look up the number of stars a hotel has, read up on places we want to go and then decide what to see and do. Even the weather is no longer a surprise. We know exactly what to expect.
In a world where the emphasis is on having as much information and knowledge as we can at our fingertips, a surprise is truly a gift.
What would it be like to let yourself be surprised by life again, as it was when we were children? To give yourself a reprieve from needing to know and constant planning? Maybe you could take yourself on a new walk, without a map. Maybe you could make a point of talking to a stranger on the bus or at the store. Maybe you could try out a new restaurant before finding out the menu and reading the reviews. Or perhaps you’d like to plan a happy surprise for someone else?
Being truly surprised opens our senses wide and makes us be fully present in a moment, rather than living it in our minds before it even happens. In the words of my very wise 15-year-old nephew, Tosh, true surprises allow us to discover the wonderful “freedom of not knowing.” Not knowing is not a bad thing. Much to the contrary, I believe it is a secret path to more wonder and delight in life.
Is there a way you can surprise yourself or someone else today?