Isn't it strange, somehow, that no matter how often anyone might be confronted with the facts, still there is the habit of finding a home -- a kind of warming stasis -- in what we "know?" It doesn't seem to be anything fancy or philosophical or worthy of criticism. It just seems to be a fact ... something verifiable in the surprise anyone might feel in the face of something "new."
I was thinking about this the other night when watching a TV show about a deep-water submersible that had traveled far, far below the ocean surface and taken pictures of the creatures that managed to survive and flourish in the darkness.
There they were, like some five-year-old's version of something frightening and powerful -- all teeth and self-generated luminescence and ... well, outside the comfortable knowings of my world. A surprise to me, but hardly a surprise to them. In a small way, they challenged my knowing world, asked me to see more widely and stop imagining either stasis or surprise.
Everyone likes a good surprise, which may account for the popularity of horror movies, but doesn't the basis of surprise rest in my current appreciation of the world, a world that is somehow shaken by something that doesn't fit within that appreciation? And doesn't this surprising stuff happen all the time ... every moment if you get down to it ... a gesture, a word, a smile, a piece of clothing that seems somehow out of character for the person wearing it? In what comfort zone, what stasis, do I find this surprise?
I don't mean to challenge surprises. I do mean to point out the assumptions that often make surprises surprising. I may feel comfortable and comforted in those assumptions -- this "me" that seems to accompany my travels as surely as my shadow in the sunshine -- but how reliable is such comfort? How true? How free? How easy?
One of my all-time favorite stories, one that I can't help telling again and again, came from an office chum. Peter came from Kenya where, as a child, he had lived on a farm. Farms in Kenya do not resemble the wide-open spaces that shape them in the US. Rather, the space for planting is laid out among tall trees -- trees that local monkeys would climb.
Peter said that when the gourds that were grown in these fields were full and ripe, the women would go out to pick them. If, by chance, they had babies, they would dig a hole in the ground, line it with cloth, put the baby in the hole and then pick the squash.
The problem was that the monkeys liked the gourds too. The women would shoo them away as best possible, but the monkeys had their wiles. As a matter of ritual, and when they saw the opportunity, the monkeys would come down out of the trees, snatch a baby and then return to a perch in the trees. There, they would taunt the women below until a couple of gourds were tossed to them -- a ransom for the baby held carefully in their grasp. In return for the gourds, the monkeys would return the baby unscathed. No baby was ever hurt, Peter said. He added that when one of his sisters was stolen in this way, "I did hope they wouldn't give her back."
In this small and wonderful tale, a lot of my assumptions and comforts are challenged. Civilization vs. the wild; man and animal ... in fact, this one small story has the capacity, like a pin popping a balloon, to let the air out of the entire panorama of my assumptions. I am forced to rethink and revise the whole thing ... and the first thing I do is to go and find another balloon to blow up, one that will include this new and surprising bit of information.
Over and over again, a new balloon. If a blue one won't do, maybe yellow or green will work better. Over and over again, creating a place of stasis and comfort ... which invariably won't stand still and creates an eventual discomfort and uncertainty. Over and over and over again. It's all both pretty common and pretty observable. Over and over and over again.
But because the habit doesn't seem to assure the comfort that I claim to seek, perhaps it is worth wondering if there is another approach, a more assured comfort zone, a world without balloons and arrogance and despair.
The Dalai Lama observed, "Everyone wants to be happy." And surely children are happy in a world of balloons. But it might be worth noting that eventually children have to grow up.
Or maybe not.