The word "surprise" comes from a root meaning "to be seized with, to overtake," so there is something unexpected, sudden, and mysterious about such an encounter or occurrence. Surprise has been categorized as one of seven universal emotional expressions, although some psychologists disagree and call it a cognitive state. The writer Alice Walker has good advice for all of us when she states, "Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise."
There are bad surprises such as losing one's job, being harshly criticized by someone you love, or learning that you only have a short time left to live. The resilient person can turn these seemingly dire happenings around by reframing them. Hence, a tragedy closes one door and opens another with opportunities and new possibilities.
A good surprise can be anything that tickles our fancy, love at first sight, a large and festive birthday party, a marriage proposal, or an unexpected promotion.
Spiritual writer Henri J. M. Nouwen has written about the need for us to honor and cherish both kinds of surprises:
"Let's not be afraid to receive each day's surprise, whether it comes to us as a sorrow or a joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate our shared humanity."
One of the major benefits of community is the chance to open our hearts and talk with others about the unexpected turns in our lives. Some lead to fear, anxiety, failure, and disappointment. Others elevate our spirits by gifting us with beauty, peace, connections, and hope. All surprises arrive and then depart quickly -- like fireflies in the night. They are both meaningful and elusive.
Why do so many people read detective stories, watch crime shows on TV, and attend the Cineplex to take in the latest horror flick? Because all of these stories are full of surprises. For many, such encounters with "not knowing" have spiritual significance. (Be sure to check out our selection of the 10 Best Movies with surprise endings.)
In the spiritual life, surprises are not only mysterious, they are tokens of God's grace. Br. David Steindal-Rast says surprise is one of his favorite names for God. Those who are open to Divine presence in this world appreciate epiphanies, moments of synchronicity, and mysticism. All are sacred forms of surprise that are accompanied by the riches of wonder, meaning, peace, and reverence.
More attention is being given to surprise in science. The Christian theologian Diarmund O'Murchu writes:
"In a quantum universe, nothing is predictable, and the idea of life being in any way determined is abhorrent. Quantum theorists very much like the word 'probability' (for which Heisenberg's uncertainty is a basic tenet). Surprise, expectancy, wonder, creativity, beauty, and elegance are the kind of words that enable the quantum scientist to make sense of reality."
As we have seen, surprise evokes many emotions, travels light, accentuates our shared humanity, opens new doors for us, and gives us goosebumps and a-ha! moments. It draws out our astonishment and helps us make sense of reality. To see what we mean, we invite you to click on the icons at right to explore our curated content on surprise.
Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, by Leeann Renninger and Tania Luna, is a sprightly and entertaining celebration of surprises. The authors point out that our brains are hardwired to deal with this quality in our lives, and they outline its unfolding through a series of steps: Freeze, Find, Shift, and Share. Renninger and Luna affirm resilience as a tension buster that makes it easier to embrace surprise and reframe the positive sides of negative developments.
To cope with the unexpected we need to get creative, seize people's attention, and stretch their capacity for wonder. The authors regale us with stories about individuals who have discovered that surprise is immersive, memorable, and transformative. If you read this book, which was a 2015 S&P Award Winner, you will be well on your way to being a "surprisologist."