“The amplitudes of life get smaller as you age. There are less and less things to experience for the first time. And each time you experience something, you don’t get quite as excited. But you don’t get quite as hurt either. I wonder what it will feel like when I’m seventy…”
— Humans of New York
In life, the feelings of competence and of surprise are roughly inversely proportional to one another. As a kid I constantly felt like I didn’t quite get how things worked and why things happened the way they did, but I was often surprised. As an adult I know what’s what, and as a result things take me off guard less often. Over the course of life surprise changes–or evolves, or corrodes, depending on your view–into competence.
As with many things in life, one is not better than the other. Surprise and competence are different ways of being appropriate to different developmental stages of our lives. Personally, I prefer a state of competence, because as a competent person I have more to offer others. Surprise on the other hand is more egocentric and consumption-oriented. But surprise is a function of learning, so it is not bad either.
In any case, the fact is that adult life structurally contains less surprise than childhood. That’s why it’s so refreshing to be taken completely by surprise once in a while. During a recent week in northern Thailand, I encountered a lot of surprises. “Wow,” I gasped when I ascended a temple interior designed in the shape of a dragon and entered another temple with a beehive affixed to its threshold. “Are you serious?” I whispered when our hosts served a heaping bowl of fried crickets. “Really?” when our boat ride had to turn around because we reached the Burmese border. “Wow!” when I was playing with two young girls, and they showed me a tiny fern which snapped shut when touched. “Crazy!” when a springtime storm turned to hail. “Amazing!” as I watched an artisan etch exquisite, meticulous detail into metal using just a hammer, a nail, and an old log. “Really?” when our hosts ordered filled the table with food, and then ordered even more food. And when an elephant’s trunk first touched me I was speechless. Of course, as a citizen of America and a resident of Turkey, I was surprised to witness a social context where religion wasn’t a political tool, and watch a Labor Day gathering transpire peacefully and tear-gas-free.
The nice thing is that Thailand (as I experienced it) is a gentle and kind place to be surprised: I experienced no judgmental attitudes, disdain, or exorbitant curiosity; just goodwill and a live-and-let-live attitude. And usually before you’ve even had time to really process the surprising thing, you’ve already been handed something tasty and spicy to eat. The next time I need a retreat from my adultish zone of competence, I will definitely be heading back to Thailand for more pleasant surprises.