The Element of Surprise

Reg: Trouble at t’mill.
Lady M: Oh, no! What sort of trouble?
Reg: One on’t cross beams gone owt askew on’t treddle.
Lady M: Pardon?
Reg: One on’t cross beams gone owt askew on’t treddle.
Lady M: I don’t understand what you’re saying.
Reg: One of the cross beams has gone out of skew on the treadle.
Lady M: Well, what on earth does that mean?
Reg: I don’t know! Mr. Wentworth just told me to come in here and say that there was trouble at the mill, that’s all. I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition!
[the door flies open and in come three cardinals in red robes]
Cardinal Ximinez: NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise!… Surprise and fear… fear and surprise… Our two weapons are fear and surprise… and ruthless efficiency! Our three weapons are fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency… and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope… Our four… no… Amongst our weapons… Hmf… Amongst our weaponry… are such elements as fear, surpr… I’ll come in again.
[They leave]
Reg: [gamely] I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition.
[They burst in again]
Ximinez: NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!… Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms… Oh damn!

This has always been one of my favorite bits from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Any time something surprising happens, I am prone to blurt out, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

Any time, that is, that I am not the one being surprised.

Now, Jenn genuinely hated surprises, of all kinds. Not just being startled, but even pleasant surprises like well-kept birthday secrets. I made her cry more than once over birthday surprises, and not in a good way. Like a kind of Spanish Inquisition without the comedic talents of Michael Palin.

While I certainly don’t have Jenn’s distaste for surprises, I absolutely have a tremendous capacity for being blindsided by them.

I’ve been wondering whether that’s a bad thing.

I was talking about this at lunch with the guys on Friday. In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales talks about the martial art of Kum Do. One of its emphases is on seeing things as they actually are, rather than planning action based on presumptions about what comes next. “The student must not anticipate his opponent’s moves or allow his natural instinct for prediction to run free, for that could lead to surprise, which could lead to momentary confusion and then sudden death.”

Gonzales is talking about situations in which death is imminent, of course. The point is that our ability to anticipate what others may need or do can often be self-destructive. And the principle can be extrapolated into other contexts, such as a confrontation at work that might, days down the road, lead to either promotion or dismissal. Sometimes you just have to wait to see how things play out–recognizing that anything, literally anything, is possible. And then when the thing happens… react to it.

In my mind, I try to envision what life would look like if one perfected living by this rule–if one were¬†never surprised by anything.

Well, first–and I won’t expend any effort defending this assertion–one wouldn’t be moved by art in the ways that artists intend.

Second, one would not be the least bit impressed or influenced by advertising. That, at least, would be a good thing… though it might make the Super Bowl less interesting. (Come to think of it, one would have no reaction whatsoever to that interception at the goal line against the Patriots. Hmmm…)

Third, punchlines would consistently fall flat.

Fourth, I don’t think one would have many close friends, other than Kum Do enthusiasts. Just think how interesting those gatherings would be.

Here’s the thing: trying to guard against surprise is a purely protective objective. But there are some things in life from which one shouldn’t protecting one’s self.

Pain, when it’s not lethal, is one of those things. Learning to deal with pain is one of the keys to survival; even Gonzales agrees with that.

Love is another, even when it brings pain… which it will.

Hell, let’s go for the jugular: you can’t protect yourself from God, or the Universe, or whatever it is you like to call it. Life always dishes up knuckleballs. “I am doing something in your own day, something you wouldn’t believe even if someone told you about it,” says the Scripture. God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” Is that the kind of universe you want to tame? Or pretend that you can tame?

So, yeah… over the course of a half-hour Monty Python show, you get used to the Spanish Inquisition barging in, and it loses the element of surprise. So if your life is on the line, by all means keep yourself focused on what is in front of you, and protect yourself. You may not expect the Spanish Inquisition, but you don’t have to be surprised by it, either. It doesn’t have to be lethal.

But… in your heart of hearts, as you ponder the things that haven’t killed you, you know that almost all of the things that have made you stronger came as surprises.

Everyone’s wired differently, of course–and I’d certainly never recommend that everyone should be like me. (I actually typed “cretainly” there… Freudian slip!) After all, what the heck do I know?

Well, just this, when it comes to surprises: I like it when life throws me knuckleballs! Even when they nail me in the kidneys, to be honest.

Pain is fleeting, but learning lasts forever.

Reg: Trouble at t’mill.

Lady M: Oh, no! What sort of trouble?

Reg: One on’t cross beams gone owt askew on’t treddle.

Lady M: Pardon?

Reg: One on’t cross beams gone owt askew on’t treddle.

Lady M: I don’t understand what you’re saying.

Reg: One of the cross beams has gone out of skew on the treadle.

Lady M: Well, what on earth does that mean?

Reg: I don’t know! – Mr. Wentworth just told me to come in here and say that there was trouble at the mill, that’s all – I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition!

[the door flies open and in come three Cardinals in red robes]

Cardinal Ximinez: NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise!… Surprise and fear… fear and surprise… Our two weapons are fear and surprise… and ruthless efficiency! Our three weapons are fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency… and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope… Our four… no… Amongst our weapons… Hmf… Amongst our weaponry… are such elements as fear, surpr… I’ll come in again.

[They leave]

Reg: [gamely] I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition.

[They burst in again]

Ximinez: NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!… Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms – Oh damn!

About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. These blog entries will be more akin to the newsletter columns I wrote for Normandy Christian Church and Puget Sound Christian College in the "old days" than my more recent journalistic work at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog. They will also be of a more overtly spiritual nature than most of my recent work.
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