Most of us hate it when someone spoils the ending of a movie or book we are enthralled with. Knowing the ending can water down the mystery of the journey. (Disclaimer: I suppose it depends on the genre, romantic comedies where guy always gets the girl may not apply.) Movies and books are better when sprinkled with surprises. There is joy in the moment when you burst into laughter from a joke you didn’t see coming, or the excitement in gasping because you didn’t know the lunatic killer was going to be behind the kitchen door. The unknown offers us the gift of genuine surprise.
The irony of this desire for entertaining surprises is that we often think of being caught off-guard as undesirable and hopefully preventable in most aspects of our lives. We've been long conditioned to find the unknown and unpredictable to be avoided at all costs. An unforeseen life event can throw us a curve ball that slaps us right across the face. But just as often, when you allow yourself the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised, life will throw you a ball that is more beautiful and bouncy than you could have imagined, and to your sheer surprise, it lands perfectly in your hand.
The difficulty of our deep desire for certainty and prediction is that there is truly only one thing we can know with 100 percent assurance, and that is that life will always change. We can confidently count on knowing that our future will look different in some way from our present moment. People will pass away, new relationships emerge, current friendships evolve and change, children grow up, jobs come and go...and while some of this will catch us off guard and be difficult, other pieces will be beautiful surprises.
What if we learned to accept uncertainty and change with the same enthusiasm that we feel when reading a book that we cannot predict? What if we learned to lean into change and tap into a tinge of excitement for the unknown? How many times have you looked up at something in your life and thought, "If I had known then what my new [job, relationship, house, hobby] was going to look like, I never would have felt so much anxiety?" But the beauty is you didn't know it was going to be better. You couldn't predict how much you would love your new partner, or being a parent, or tackling a new career. It was indeed a beautiful surprise.
So often, we fear the unknown and unpredictable with such intensity that we will stay unhappy to avoid its wrath. We will refuse a job change because what if it’s worse? We will avoid taking a class or exploring a hobby because what if we embarrass ourselves? We often wait until the change is pushed at us with such intensity that we are forced to accept the new path. And then we move reluctantly down the new road fighting each step. What if we just learned to lean in, and even as we feel the fear of not knowing, we allowed ourselves to imagine that beautiful surprises may be awaiting us?
This lesson has been a slow one for me, a low-risk creature of habit in many ways. I love to feel in control and to delude myself into thinking I can arrange my life in ways that will always ensure security and predictability. What I have discovered for myself is that not only is this not true, but it also doesn't serve me in living my life to the fullest. So often this element of beautiful surprises comes when I allow myself to risk walking into the unknown. And to my surprise, I have discovered ways to practice this leaning in.
I watch a movie I never anticipated liking and it ends up sending me into hysterical laughter. I try new foods that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable for my simple meat-and-potatoes Irish taste buds. I take a class I have always wanted to take but feared I wouldn't be good enough to explore. Or even bigger, I begin a career that has a million unknown elements only to discover that I am having more fun than I have ever had.
What these daily baby steps do is build our confidence at leaning in. Each time we adjust to the unknown, each time we push through the uncertainty, we gain confidence in our ability to handle the new. And each time we are surprised with a pleasant outcome that we never saw coming, we must remind ourselves that it was only by leaning into the uncertainty that we were given the chance to experience the joy of a moment we hadn't imagined.
Of course, sometimes the unknowns are painful. Sometimes I do get embarrassed. Sometimes I do fail, even epically fail. But change is inevitable and so often necessary. And what I am discovering is that where the risks are higher and the unknowns even greater, the surprises are often far better. This lesson has been a slow one for me. I am practicing it daily and it has changed my life in, you guessed it, beautiful and surprising ways.