Surprise: an Anthropology

Surprise: an Anthropology April 27, 2018

As a creature of habit, I do not like surprises. I like the routine and the predictability. I like knowing when my train arrives, when a task can be feasibly completed, when I can expect to return home to make dinner, and so on. Big changes are scary and often dealt with by padding new routines around them, like a calendar’s version of a burrito.

Very often, however, the routine can get to me. I become irritated by the predictability of it all. The humdrum becomes a drag, and you get bored. To fight the boredom, I try to create a diversion: a holiday, a change in the routine, a new outfit. Despite your efforts, the novelty will quickly wear thin as you realise that even this break from the routine I designed by you, I also designed. Somehow, the break from the routine I wanted was thwarted by my need for routine, manifest this time by a surprise that happens on my own terms.

I then wonder why, deep down inside, we do not feel as satisfied as I have hoped, and ask myself if this is all there is. I was puzzled by this conundrum till I stumbled upon a passage in Josef Pieper’s Divine Madness.

Commenting on Plato’s Phaedrus, Pieper made the fascinating observation that, as a species, we are anthropologically made for surprse. He says that Man is

…constituted in such a way that…he needs to be forced through inspiration, out of the self-sufficiency of his thinking – through an event, therefore, that lies beyond his disposing power, an even that comes to him only in the form of something unpredictable. 

Such events lie beyond our capacity to plan and control, and Plato (via Pieper) suggests that such moments of surprise beyond our expectations constitute not only an immanent experience of human flourishing, but also a liminal experience where the inbreaking of divine can occur.

The routine, when not held on too tightly, can become the seedbed which nurtures both the kind of surprise Pieper spoke of and the habit of expectation of such a surprise.


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