Becoming ‘hungry for surprises’: The cultivation of lightness (Part 2)

In Part 1, I discuss the importance of being surprised, arguing that philosophical inquiring presents us with two kinds of surprises: perplexities and illuminations. Today, I discuss the cultivation of lightness in the presence of surprise.

2. The Cultivation of Lightness

One important benefit of learning the art of inquiry is that we become prepared to face up to the ordinary surprises that life reveals to us. Let’s suppose, as I believe we have reason to do, that everyday life is comprised of ordinary surprises, plenty of events occurring in ways or at times that we hadn’t expected, anticipated, or foreseen. We may be disposed to ‘face up’ to these ordinary surprises in any number of unfruitful or problematic ways. In the eyes of the untrained and unvigilant, most attitudinal and emotional responses seem almost like reflex actions, simply–and incorrectly–a deep part of ‘our nature.’

On the one hand, we may respond to an ordinary surprise by raising the intensity of its significance too far up the positive scale. We may simply be astonished, amazed, or nonplussed. Should we accord the event an even greater importance to our lives or our projects, we may experience unwarranted jubilee, ebullience, elation, or ecstasy. A trifle of a surprise gift shouldn’t make us overjoyed to the point of ‘losing ourselves,’ as though our flourishing depended too much on good fortune, the latest news, or good reputation.

On the other hand, we may be disposed to be startled or shocked by surprises, the implication being that this event is creeping up to the status of a threat. In some cases, we may be disappointed or dismayed, and in others frightened, horrified, or paralyzed.

On both accounts, we’ve lost a kind of allostasis: lost, that is, a sense of how to harmoniously respond to and play with things. Children, my friend the dramatist Ian Prinsloo told me in a recent conversation, are absolutely ‘hungry for surprises.’ Yet far from being ‘hungry for surprise,’ most adults seem either titillated and entranced by them (famished, let’s say, so that they’re looking for ‘a fix’), or they’re turned off and cowed by them (unwilling even to taste, partake, or join in).

In lieu of the overly intense responses outlined above, I’d like to propose that we cultivate the kind of character that is properly, energetically, and lightly responsive to ordinary surprises. It’s only an apparent paradox to say that inquiring teaches us to be prepared for responding well to we know not what. It does so, first, by training us to suspend judgment and keep our composure when an event runs away from our anticipations. This suspension of judgment, this kind of composure feel more like smiling softly, like being in on a joke, or like reading Alice in Wonderland. We feel lightness in our ability to stand back and take in.

Other virtues will, in a moment’s notice, soon be invoked. We’ll learn to display courage in order to stand firm in the unknowing rather than running away from it. We’ll learn to exhibit temperance by not wishing to be through with the experience straightaway; patience by taking our time instead of rushing ahead or making ourselves busy; and discernment by figuring out when to laugh easily with ourselves and with others. In all of this, which is no doubt the work of a lifetime shining forth beautifully in an instant, we’re getting the hang of living with lightness, getting used to the idea of taking most things in stride.

So that unlike the too rigid Creon, the king who, out of fury, imprisons Antigone, unlike the self-righteous man who won’t even see a surprise as calling him to reflect upon himself, and unlike the diffident and meek who slink back from being tested, we’ll come to bend like a reed without breaking. The more our character strengthens by virtue of inquiring, the more buoyant and balletic, the more pliable and flexible we’ll become. An ordinary surprise, provided we’re trained in the art of inquiry, won’t cause us to flinch or harden; rather, it will quietly urge us to search and lightheartedly to find that person in question: by which I mean, ourselves.

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