To draw the character of the cheerfully ready person more vividly, I return to Nietzsche’s description of the tightrope walker and the ‘worthy gentleman.’ In one aphorism, Nietzsche distinguishes between non-tightrope walking and tightrope walking situations: ‘To get into only those situations in which illusory virtues are of no use, but in which, like the tightrope-walker on his rope, one either falls or stands–or gets off…’
I will be heading to Banff in about a week. I will not know the participants; I will not know what we will do exactly; I will not know what will happen; I will have never worked with my friend Ian nor taught before with another person. I know only that it will be a philosophical drama concerned to dramatize surprise. Therefore, it is perfect.
Recall that the ethical disposition Ian and I are calling ‘being open to being surprised’ may be characterized, depending on the occasion, by cheerful readiness, a sense of perplexity, or a deep fascination. As usual, Nietzsche–that gnomist–found a better, succincter way of speaking about my life. In Twilight of the Idols, he writes, ‘To get into only those situations in which illusory virtues are of no use, but in which, like the tightrope-walker on his rope, one either falls or stands–or gets off…’ This is how I seek to live each day of my life. For me, there is only the life of the tightrope walker, the life of stepping on and either falling, standing (possibly proceeding), or else getting off. And, in all of this, because of all this, the tightrope walker is cheerful.
You’re told that a scenic outlook up ahead is exquisitely beautiful. Well-worth the time, you’ve been assured by phone. You trust this friend and are willing to go along with his recommendation. So, you and your traveling companion look ahead, therefore, with eager anticipation that this exquisitely beautiful outlook will provide some respite from your long travels. Up ahead, you see the sign, stop the car, and get out.
Immediately, you’re both disappointed. You expected something exquisitely beautiful and the scene before you is something less.
What is it about the very structure of expectation that can only lead to disappointment, dullness (oh, this is rather nice), or a sense of relief? And why is it that it is only when you were not expecting something to occur and it does that it can enliven you, awaken your senses, causing you to take notice, feel wonder, and appreciate something deeply? (I am thinking again of the structure of surprise.)
Knowing this, one had better, so to speak, throw away all travel guides as well as all step-by-step recipes for living.
The nightwatchman is on the lookout for the intruder. He is instructed to be vigilant. He has learned by rote the common routes, and he has devised certain stratagems for staying awake, for being alert.
But the danger always comes by surprise whenever and wherever he was not looking. He was looking but not for this. Was on the lookout but for something else. Luckily, this time it turned out to be nothing. He is advised in future, lest he lose his post, to be more vigilant. He braces himself to do so, slapping cold water on his face.
We are all told to be nightwatchmen of our lives and thus set ourselves up to be duped. After the gate is breached unbeknownst to us, we instruct ourselves to be more vigilant, less incautious. Yet could it be that we will never be vigilant enough, the surprise always coming out beyond or beneath the lookout, and would we not be wiser if we learned to take notice of this, got good at responding timely, nimbly, and gracefully to whatever has slipped past our initial notice? I am turning the whole thing around. The key is not foresight or resilience, not overfamiliarization, but perceptive, clear-thinking responsiveness.
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.