By Qin Sun Stubis
No one knows who invented the odd little toy known as the jack-in-the-box, but this curious invention has been entertaining children for centuries. Upon turning a thin metal crank, deceptively innocent music starts to play, and then a clown pops out of the colorful cube, startling the player, and creating an unexpected rush of excitement.
The surprise seldom fails to elicit smiles from fascinated children, who seemingly can’t stop playing it over and over. Little do these youngsters know that this box full of tricks is actually teaching them a vital lesson about life–namely that our world is full of surprises, be they big or small, good or bad. Like other vital childhood inoculations, a jack-in-the-box injects kids with a mild dose of what is to come, preparing them for when they encounter unexpected things throughout life.
In general, we love surprises. A sudden job promotion, an unexpected marriage proposal, or a winning lottery ticket brings us instant joy. We like surprises so much that we sometimes painstakingly contrive our own, like secretly-planned parties, unexpected presents and visits to our loved ones, or purposefully seeking out dramatic movies or soap operas. Sometimes when life becomes a bore, we daydream that unexpected pleasant things will come our way. When surprises are good, they are most exhilarating, precisely when the receivers least expect them.
Unfortunately, our imperfect world brings us not just good news, but also sudden calamities. Many are beyond our control and can have devastating effects, such as the unanticipated loss of a job by a breadwinner, the untimely death of a loved one, the 2010 BP oil spill, or the tsunami in Japan. These nasty surprises often leave their recipients vulnerable and paralyzed, utterly at a loss as how to cope.
Without the benefit of physical and emotional preparation, a big bad surprise can sometimes scar us for life; its magnitude can seem beyond the ability of our gentle jack-in-the-box to prepare us. When calamities strike, we are often traumatized and full of grief: “Why me? How did it happen? What did I do to deserve such punishment?”
We are upset and not in the right state of mind and body to act heroically, or even normally. We forget that like justice, disasters are often blind. You can wrack your brains for days, weeks and years, and never find an answer to why a tornado hit your house and not your neighbor’s, or why your child got gravely ill while his friends are all robustly healthy. If you dwell on how and why such things happen, you’ll likely burrow into a deep dark hole called depression.
No matter what is heading your way, always remember what life is about: It’s about experiencing things you’ve never done. It’s about choosing to act bravely, and with strength in good times and bad. You will be able to sustain yourself with the comfort and support of your family and friends, the very reasons for you to live and live well. When things are bad, fall into their arms, for they will nurture you and bind up your wounds. When life is good, share your bounty with them and thank them for always being there for you.
Remember, life is unpredictable but our family and friends are steadying forces that can be counted upon to help us celebrate–and occasionally survive–surprises. We will never know what is heading our way each and every day. But with a solid foundation of love and support, we are ready to face and weather most storms.
In fact, when confronted with the unexpected in life, discovering your own strength and seeing help pop out of all corners may be the biggest and best surprise of all.
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