Experts say, surprises are good for us. How can this be?
Research shows that surprises work on the brain’s dopamine system and allows us to focus our attention better. Data claims that surprises inspire us to look at our situations in new ways, to keep us learning, or bring satisfaction.
The problem with this data is, it doesn’t feel completely true. And experts even warn against bad reactions to bad surprises.
I remember being a kid and playing baseball with my siblings and cousins. My big cousin swung the bat and hit me smack in the forehead. The whack was totally unexpected. And not satisfying.
What typically happens after a bad surprise?
I’ve caught myself adjusting my expectations and training myself accordingly so as not to be disappointed.
I trained myself to stay away from baseball. It was my best effort to using that surprise-whack to my advantage. And so far, so good, I haven’t been hit in the head with a bat again.
Basically, I avoided baseball in the effort to avoid a disappointing surprise.
But think about this Cheryl, I tell myself, are experts telling me that, if I hadn’t avoided baseball, would I have become a star baseball player earning millions?
Probably not, I can’t even throw a ball.
But for this address, that incident hints at what experts warn against. Avoiding surprises. Experts gently encourage us rather, to grow benefits from surprises.
Which means, I can’t do its opposite of avoiding surprises. Avoidance is a short-term solution, similar to the option to lower my expectations in the hopes it will reduce disappointments when the unexpected comes my way.
Let’s take half a minute here though, to distinguish between realistic and unrealistic expectations. In regard to unrealistic expectations, yes, it is effective, it is to our benefit to avoid or lower unrealistic expectations.
But, when it comes to realistic expectations, expectations of bettering our world, we can treat surprises with more lasting answers or advantages. I think we do it already.
We’re learning about human nature. We learn how resilient and progressive we can be, while at the same time learning how destructive we can be.
We learn how to use reason and conviction, to strive to grow the good in human nature.
Because of my own limitations, I find having a power greater than myself helps in this effort. I call the greater power divine Spirit, or God. And remind myself Spirit is the source of benefits and satisfaction, not surprises. Which means therefore, that surprises can’t take away benefits or satisfaction.
I’ve also taken the time to observe. To look around and ask, just how many people get surprised?
Some people get surprised often, whereas some people don’t seem to get surprised at all. The older I get, the less I get surprised. Every time a surprise comes my way, I shake my head and think, doesn’t surprise me one bit.
Then I plow ahead through the situation, to grow benefits. For inspiration, I often look to others who have successfully grown benefits themselves.
There is the story of Joseph, in the Bible. He was thrown into a pit, by his jealous brothers. I can’t help but assume that the family dysfunction was a disappointing surprise to Joseph.
A tribe came by the pit, brought Joseph out and sold him as a slave.
Joseph’s owner learned to trust him. Until, that is, Joseph was falsely accused and so sent to prison.
Despite the surprise of prison, Joseph kept his God and believed in advantages, not only for himself but also for others. It’s interesting, because whereas Joseph previously worked for the privileged, he now had the opportunity to work for the underprivileged. And, he could, because divine Spirit is in force everywhere, designed to uplift and empower satisfaction.
A couple years after prison life, Joseph was remembered for his good skills, and released. Moreover, he was put in charge of saving the country from starvation, which included saving his immediate family.
In a contemporary book titled, “Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected,” authors, Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger argue that surprise, whether good or bad, brings vitality to our lives.
But what about the times when a series of bad surprises overwhelm the good and eat away at vitality or satisfaction?
This nearly happened to me in religion.
My religious background includes a religion associated with Mary Baker Eddy, born in early 19th century. She realized the value of applying the unseen power of Spirit, and taught it to others through a schooling called Christian Science. She wrote a book titled “Science and Health.”
A group of followers formed, and Mrs. Eddy later started a church. And, one surprise followed another.
At the turn of the 20th century, people were flocking to churches of Christ, Scientist, led by Eddy.
The institution gained in credibility especially when it came to spiritual health and healing. Christian Science was so in vogue that nonreligious and religious people clamored to be in her church.
Thousands of Jews left the synagogues in the 1920s to join her church.
Jewish leaders were taken by surprise by the migration, but used the surprise to a greater advantage by acknowledging their own access to mindful health. Morris Lichtenstein, wrote and published the “Jewish Science and Health.” He could, because the unseen force of Spirit, supporting Eddy was also supporting him. Jews began staying in the synagogues.
The Society of Jewish Science organized in New York City and is still there today.
Back to Mrs. Eddy, after she died in 1910, her church began losing leadership throughout the 20th century.
By the time I was born in 1961, the state of the church did not resemble the early history of Christian Science.
The church was in decline, and at that point, Christian Scientists were known as the people who never go to doctors. It was an accepted stereotype, believed by both admirers and critics of Christian Science. Even I believed it, until it became unpleasant and alarming.
I felt guilty when I went to the doctor. I also heard remarks that children’s health care was compromised by parents who were praying.
I heard people justify or debate this stereotype using one sentence from Eddy’s Science and Health. The sentence reads, “Only through radical reliance on Truth can scientific healing power be realized.”
In efforts to discuss healing or benefits, that sentence was repeated as if it meant healing comes through radical reliance on prayers. But it doesn’t say that.
Reliance on prayer is not the same thing as reliance on Truth.
Sure, prayer is a big part of Christian Science, but prayer isn’t equal to Truth. Prayer is only a method of discovering truth, even discovering the proper use of medicine.
I also learned the definition for radical had, well, radically changed during the 20th century. The definition of radical found in a 19th century dictionary, was “pertaining to the root or origin.”
Today, radical means extremism.
So, the religion I was familiar with, did not condone extremism or fanaticism, but encouraged reliance on truth for progress and satisfaction.
In other words, religion has no power other than what human nature gives it. And human prejudices make mistakes.
Surprisingly, this conclusion made my mind more peaceful. It made my mind not so quick to link religion with radicalism.
Honoring that lesson to my advantage, I practice not judging a person by their religion, and not judging a religion by a person.
But I had to do more, because sitting around thinking I was no longer involved with the stereotyping and extremism, I was still indirectly letting the misconceptions carry on. To reverse this, I revised and published a revision of Eddy’s Science and Health.
In my latest edition of 21st Century Science and Health, the sentence I referred to earlier now reads, “Only by advancing from the root of Truth can scientific healing power be realized.”
Advancing from the root of Truth, realizes healing power.
Writing and publishing are only a few of many ways the force of Spirit encourages us to grow benefits, for ourselves and the world.
Now, I’ve noticed something else about surprises. They can be confusing. So confusing, that I forget to reap any benefits.
But can I reap benefits later in life? Yes.
In the 1960s, I was barely old enough to be amazed and confused at what NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency were doing. When the elementary school “emergency test” alarm came over the speaker system, we kids dove under our desks for protection from Russian bombings that never came. At home, I watched on the black-and-white television, American and Russian astronauts, respectively, escape the powers of earth, orbit in outer space, and return to earth. It all came with elements of surprise. But I didn’t reap any benefits.
And now today, outer space adventures are ho-hum. After five decades and spending a bazillion dollars, we have astronauts, today, living where we once thought no person could live. And they’ve been doing it continuously, since year 2000, at the International Space Station.
I later-in-life determined to reap benefits on a mental level. I used my memories to serve as symbols of our ability to escape physical limitations, orbit in freedom, and return with new perspectives.
We can, escape limiting thoughts, live in spiritual freedom, and share actively new perspectives with humanity.
A couple of weeks ago in the New York Times, American liberal journalist and commentator, Charles Blow, wrote an op/ed titled, “Checking my male privilege.” The author addressed the recent rash of high-profile accusations of sexual harassment and assault toward women. Blow confessed that he was shocked by these men’s vulgar behavior toward women, because he hadn’t and probably won’t harass women.
As a male outside the harassment issue, Blow admitted though that he still needed to check himself. He didn’t want to work implicitly, or indirectly, on the side of sexism. He wanted pro-actively, to stand on the right side of fighting for justice.
He also wrote, “There is no magical solution here for the infinite and permanent expansion of empathy and awareness. It is work, hard work.”
“The infinite and permanent expansion of empathy and awareness.” What a cool statement.
I believe, the force of divine Spirit, is behind this infinite and permanent expansion of goodness.
Spirit is in force. It’s universal. It attracts and surprises us with our ability to fight for justice and equality. And then, what happens to the sexism, racism, and fanaticism?
No, wait, that’s not the question to ask.
Here’s the question: When we act with divine Spirit, what happens to justice, respect, and lasting satisfaction? They expand. As does our ability to face any surprise, and use it to benefit our self and humanity.
(Text above is sermon written and delivered by Cheryl Petersen at Unitarian Universalist Society in Oneonta, New York, November 26, 2017)