“Surprise is the greatest gift life can grant us.” ~ Boris Pasternak
A true gift of self-love is the freedom to be surprised by people we meet in the world.
Truth—I struggle with this. Instinctively, I feel it is safer if I can define strangers and put them in little boxes in my mind. I can easily file them away as good and worthy of my time or bad and unworthy. That has been the most comfortable path, but I’ve been earnestly trying to change this instinct.
I spent a good portion of the past year trying with every bit of my little heart to not put strangers in those little safe and defined boxes. I will freely admit that I’m not always successful in this venture. I think we are programmed to make snap judgements about people. Despite all efforts to the contrary, I still do it.
And yet, I have been so completely wrong on a number of occasions. I found it entirely soul-crushing when I had placed someone in the worth-my-time box and found out they didn’t belong there. And I’m certain I missed out on some amazing connections because I wrote off strangers so quickly.
In this past year, as I’ve allowed myself the freedom to be surprised, I have realized that openness magnifies the happiness from positive surprises and tempers the sting of the negative ones.
But also it is beginning to teach me that my snap judgements are not so en pointe. For example, while in Budapest last summer I met two people. One, Zsolt, I pegged as a playboy—pretty, charming, unreliable. He said all the right things. He wore all the right things. He knew everyone and managed to float around the city on a proverbial cloud. Plain and simple, he seemed too good to be true. So I wrote him off quickly. Honestly, I never even gave him half a chance.
The other, Philip, I pegged as the chivalrous, intelligent, could be a friend-forever guy. He was a German national living in Budapest and working on his PhD in something earth-shatteringly swoon-inducing like “saving puppies.” He played the cello and sang to me. And he led me on a tour through Budapest when the streets were empty and all of the architecture was alive with light. I was mesmerized. This stranger felt like home.
Fast forward two months when I decided on a lark to return to Budapest. When my friend and I stepped off the plane, I caught myself thinking of those two characters that we’d met earlier in the summer. I vaguely assumed we would not see the playboy again. My judgement of him told me he would have flitted on to his next adventure. Most importantly, I truly believed that the two backpacking girls from America would be irrelevant memories to him. And the other I expected to roll out the red carpet for our return. I thought he would offer yet another round of educational touring. In fact, I was entirely convinced our surprise return would be met with utter excitement on his part.
Well, as it happens, I was wrong. Wrong on all accounts.
The opposite of my expectations came true. Zsolt went to great effort to allow us to stay in his immaculate little flat until we could get the key back into our temporary apartment. When he arrived home from work that night, he spent time making sure we were comfortable and that all our needs were met. And as I drifted to sleep on the couch, I hazily remember him carefully placing a blanket over me before returning to sit with my travel companion on the balcony. In my head, I silently apologized for making assumptions about him that were completely unfounded, and I felt happily surprised by his genuine goodness.
The other responded entirely in an entirely opposite way. His life was simply too busy to acknowledge our return. And his girlfriend was back in town, so we were unwelcome and potentially incriminating. Ah ha! The reality of this man was wildly different from what I had expected. I felt a whole host of things ranging from tremendous disappointment to embarrassment at just how bad my instincts were, to complete disgust with humanity. Most importantly, I felt dreadfully surprised.
And then, in just a blink, I released those expectations I’d had about him and embraced the surprise. The sting of disappointed faded. I let him float away.
Like Eleanor Roosevelt says, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Many moons later, I still hear randomly from that wonderful man I initially pegged as a not-worth-my-time playboy. And he is a sparkling reminder to me that people are often so much more than they seem. This humbled understanding plays in my mind each time I meet a stranger and instinctively judge them. The memory of him is just the pause I need to regain my center and give the new person in my life a chance to surprise me—for better or for worse. And the other, well, what was his name again?
People will surprise us. Let them. Love them for the surprise. And rejoice in the serendipitous moments the surprise brings.
Author: Jessica Chardoulias
Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Renee Picard