The Prize of Surprise

March 18th, 2013

element of surprise

A couple goes for a meal at a Chinese restaurant and orders the Chicken Surprise.
The waiter brings the meal, served in a lidded cast iron pot.
Just as the wife is about to serve herself, the lid of the pot rises lightly and she briefly sees two beady little eyes looking around before the lid slams shut.
“Did you see that?” she asks her husband.
He hasn’t, so she asks him to look in the pot. He reaches for it and again the lid rises and he sees two little eyes looking around before it slams down.
Shocked and upset, they call the waiter over, and explain what is happening.
“Ah”, he says, “You ordered the Chicken Surprise. I brought out the Peeking Duck by mistake.”

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle said, “The secret to humor is surprise.”

I would go even further than Aristotle. The secret to living fully and freely is surprise. Not knowing is the most exhilarating, sometimes frightening but always liberating, open ended mindset of all. Vera Nazarian describes it like this,

Would you like to know your future? If your answer is yes, think again. Not knowing is the greatest life motivator. So enjoy, endure, survive each moment as it comes to you in its proper sequence — a surprise.

From one perspective, surprise is the opposite of belief. Belief is a period at the end of an experience, surprise is a question mark, an exclamation mark or maybe a comma, giving you time to pause and ponder the possibilities.

Surprise is the spontaneous friend, always suggesting adventure out of the blue. Belief is the sensible, predictable friend. We need both but unfortunately in our tightly controlled lives, sensible usually trumps spontaneity.

A belief is something you’ve already decided, with or without evidence. It could be a personal self belief about who you are, your value in the world or your limitations. Or it could be a large B Belief about the way the world works like cause and affect or determinism.

A belief is like a carefully labeled filling system. Something happens, and you immediately file it under “I’ve seen this before, I know what this is, this means……..” Something else happens and you reach for the file called, “I told me so.”

We ALL have beliefs and assumptions. There is no avoiding them. Personally, I’d like to see more surprise, and less set in stone beliefs. Unless, of course, you create a belief that every moment is a surprise. That’s a belief with potential.

It’s no accident that most spiritual traditions have some form of parable, or surprising stories and various tricksters to jolt people out of a habitual mindset and it all rests on the element of surprise. Surprise is THE most spiritual quality that leads to all sorts of awakening.

The author Byrd Gibbens said,

Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise. The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth.
I’ve known a few tricksters in my life, and I treasure the lessons they taught me. They’re usually people who you expect to act certain ways, like people in official positions, but they surprise you with their raw humanity. Like the Bishop who used to stay in our home regularly when I was growing up. He smoked like a chimney and swore like a trooper. He said grace before our meals together and they were usually along the line of “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub.” which you just don’t expect from a Bishop.There is a famous story about this Bishop (Bishop Witt, with a name to match his character). He was asked to bless a fishing boat, so he waded out into the water with his long robes hitched up and carrying his Bishop’s miter. When he’s finished, he hitched his robes up again and waded back to the shore. Two people were digging on the shore and hadn’t noticed him. So when he got close, he poked one of them with his miter and said, “Is this Australia?”Surprise questions assumptions and expectations and challenges you to stay open, not judge any experience by its cover. It helps you see new aspects to who you are, and stay open to the perspectives of other people.

One of my favorite trickster stores comes from Africa. A trickster taught two friends a lesson in conflict.

The two friends had houses that faced each other, both with nice gardens and a path that ran between them. The trickster dressed in a two-color shirt that was divided down the middle, black on one side and blue on the other side.  He then walked along the narrow path between their houses.The two friends were each working across from one another in their gardens.  The trickster made a lot of noise to attract their attention as he walked the path.

At the end of the day, one friend said to the other, “Wasn’t it strange the way that guy with the black shirt walked right down our path making so much noise?”  His friend replied, “Yes, it was strange.  But he had a blue shirt on.”

They started arguing about the color of the trickster’s shirt. “It was black.”  “Blue,” shouted the other.  “Black!”  “Blue!”  “Black!”  “Blue!”

Just then the trickster returned, walking back along the path between them.  The two friends stopped and stared.  Now they saw only the other side of the trickster’s shirt.

The first friend quickly apologized.  “I am so sorry, my friend.  I don’t know how I could have been so mistaken.  You are right. His shirt is blue.”  And his friend said, “Oh, no, I apologize.  You were right.  The strange fellow’s shirt was clearly black as you said!”

Then they both stopped and frowned at each other.  They both thought the other was mocking him. They began to wrestle and roll on the ground fighting.

Just then the trickster returned and faced the two men who were punching and kicking each other and shouting, “Our friendship is over!”  The trickster walked right in front of them, displaying his two-color shirt.

He laughed and danced around because of their silly fight.

The two friends saw that his shirt was divided right down the middle, both black and bright blue.  They stopped fighting and stood silently.  They turned to each other and both said, “I’m sorry.” They had both been right, and they had both been wrong. It was all about perspective. From that day forward, they laughed every time they got into an argument and said, “I guess I’m just seeing one side of the shirt.” Their friendship became unbreakable.

When you’re open to surprise, you can learn from anyone, in almost any circumstance. With the recent consecration of a new Pope, its a reminder we can even learn from Popes. Outgoing, Pope Benedict said,

In every truth there is something more than we would have expected, in the love that we receive there is always an element that surprises us.

Subscribe to Grapevine Back to Grapevine page

  1. Cecilia says:

    If there is a calming place it has to be your website!I tell everyone I can on Facebook about the inspiration you have given me for all my” blues “. Thank you Ian.

  2. Joy says:

    Aside from the  refreshing element of surprise,  laughter is such  wonderful gift to us in so many ways. It can break tensions, expose wrong thinking and pomposity, reduce differences and  unite us in so many ways. My sense of humour gets me into trouble at times  but I feel so sorry for those who can only see life through serious eyes. They miss so much!