In case you’ve never tried the activity, it’s impossible to tickle yourself. Some schizophrenics are the exception here since their identity can blur with others and they may struggle to self-differentiate. But since tickling hinges on surprise, there’s no way for the rest of us to sufficiently surprise our own brains if we try to move in with our fingers for a self-tickle.
The human brain is an effective prediction machine. It’s constantly on the lookout for patterns, repeat experiences, and the sight of anything it believes it ought to prepare for.
So, I don’t actually have to tickle my one-year-old grandson to get a laugh out of him. All I have to do is move in close with my hands, don a face that looks as if I’m about to tickle him, and he spontaneously erupts. It’s the cutest little cackle with the biggest smile, and that’s without me even touching him. His laughter occurs because tickling is built on surprise. The unknown starting and stopping that accompany tickling are what challenge the brain’s capacity to predict. The pre-touch anticipation of a tickle is enough to get a one-year-old giggling.
A lot that happens in our world doesn’t surprise us. We expect to be threatened with government shutdown every year at this time, regardless of which party is in power. We know that navigating potholes while driving in the upper Midwest during winter is routine. We’re certain that the latest school shooting was neither the first nor the last. The gun saturation in America on a per capita basis is enough to inform us that it’s only a matter of days yet til the next one. We’re positive that Omicron isn’t the last hiccup in getting beyond this pandemic. And so forth and so on.
So, yes, much of our day-to-day experience is predictable. But Christian people have a beautiful antidote to so much of these known routines. We have the surprise that goes with taking Advent seriously. We get to love the surprise of that which we cannot predict. Like Mary, with her inexplicable child in tow, and all of the unknowns that would accompany his life, we hang our hat on both hope and surprise.
Hope is not a cruel joke. Surprise reminds us that despair doesn’t hold a candle to longing or anticipation. The mysterious workings of God are constantly at play in our lives, quietly trying to highlight beauty and rectify what is oh so broken. We can’t exactly surprise ourselves in Advent any more than we can tickle ourselves. But we can place our lives in the midst of other people, in the mysteries of worship, and in the context of unusual experiences, and in all of that – be surprised!