The joy of surprise. The beauty of routine.
I like surprises.
Once or twice a year, I pull my kids out of school for a “surprise day”… instead of sitting in the classroom going through another set of math drills and literary lessons, we paddle board in the gulf of Mexico, kayak amidst the mangroves or hike trails through wildlife sanctuaries. Or we sit in an empty movie theater, then overeat bacon burgers, seasoned fries and chocolate shakes. I believe going out and experiencing life is just as educational as sitting in a classroom. I believe spending time together is even more enlightening – for all of us. I thought this made me a cool parent. While my kids appreciate a day out of school, they have taught me something: we are wired very differently.
When my offspring hear, “Today is surprise day!” the house echoes with groans, “What now?” My daughter scrambles to evaluate her homework list and test schedule to determine if she can take the time off. My sons rolls their eyes, exchange knowing looks and mutter about the next lame adventure I am forcing upon them. Those initial moments of jarring them out of their routine and into something unexpected are, well, painful. Every single time.
So much of what we do on a daily basis is mired in habit and routine. On the one hand, that’s efficient. It helps everyone get along. We know exactly what we’re doing and exactly what to expect. On the other hand, we can get so accustomed to our routines and expectations that we don’t pause to note: are we really happy? Are we living our life or just reacting to a series of expected events?
What we do in the moment, how we respond when a new idea or opportunity is presented to us, makes the difference between an interesting story and a significant life change. But how we’re wired also makes a difference. My husband and I are big opportunists – and I mean that in the nicest sense of the word. My children look at it as disruptive, potentially derailing them from a perfectly good plan. The caution that holds them back is not necessarily misplaced… not all risks pay off, not all spontaneous ideas pan out. Not all adventures are good. One Easter Sunday, our meandering excursion smacked us right into a white sedan in which a woman texting while making a u-turn. We felt pangs from that little adventure for months.Unexpected moments shake us out of the routine and open our eyes to a new perspective. While kayaking in March, we learned about muscles we clearly never used before and cruised through the mangroves with giant turtles. On a trip to the dog beach, we learned that our water spaniel was actually afraid of the water. Once we went to a German festival where the featured performance was a Mexican mariachi band with a four foot iguana. We learned a lot about iguanas on that excursion. Some of our surprise trips turn into a new path altogether. On one adventure, my husband met a university professor who strongly encouraged him to study ancient languages and pursue an advanced degree. This chance meeting led to two masters’ degrees and then several years as a tour guide leading educational excursions throughout Italy and Greece.
My wiring loves surprises, craves the adventure of ‘what’s next’ without really knowing just what that is. But sometimes when we are building our lives, and especially when we are responsible for others, settling into some more predictable patterns and establishing a sense of stability grows more important.
I’m not suggesting we stop running loops. Those loops provide the basis of our home culture: familiar routines that minimize the number of battles I referee between three teenagers, that accomplish just enough chores to keep the city health board away, that get us regularly to work, to school, and on Sundays, to the dog park. But just remember now and then that even the most idyllic routine is worth a pause: once in a while, wander off track to see what surprise awaits you on an unexplored path. That short excursion can be just enough to recharge you and return you to your loops with a greater appreciation of the life you have built.And there is something to be said for the blessing of routines. Every Sunday, I take my mutts to the dog park. That’s a routine I embrace. Once there, my herder runs all the other dogs in wide loops, barking to keep everyone in line and running in the same direction. My spaniel outruns all the others – except one golden retriever with a much longer stride – leading the way for his herding partner. They run the same loops every week. They are happy running those loops. They run. They break for water. They sniff.
They meander. Then wham! Back to running loops. This is their routine. And they love it.
We are happy repeating our loops, too. We go to work. Or school. We come home. We do chores. We see friends. We play – eat, drink, sport, whatever our pleasure. We repeat. It’s a good life.