I used to dream of getting a surprise birthday party. Like, full-on fantasy dreams. Most little girls dream about their wedding days or being a princess; of course I imagined those as well, but all I wanted in life was a surprise birthday party. I imagined where it would take place, how many people would be there, what they all would say to me, and how utterly shocked and pleased I’d be. To me, a surprise birthday party was the ultimate expression of love. It was my strongest wish for the greater part of my younger years — so strong, in fact, that it remained a favorite daydream even when I got to college.
And then it happened.
You know what I found out? I’m not such a fan of big surprises.
Okay so it wasn’t precisely a birthday party. At the time I had been dating a childhood friend for a couple months, but he was in Michigan and I was in South Carolina, so communication was rough. At one point he mentioned possibly coming to see me, but since he was student teaching and I was busy, it never came up again. Until one day a couple friends and Schwes and I went downtown – and there he was, sitting on a bench. It was amazing! I was so surprised, and he and Schwes had worked so hard to pull it off, I was beyond flattered. After the initial shock and pleasure, though, I have to admit it was one of the most awkward weekends I’d ever experienced. I was in the middle of a crazy semester and didn’t have time to socialize. He literally sat and watched me do homework and practice piano. He’d flown down, so neither of us had a car to transport us around, and I was living on campus so had limitations on our interaction anyway. And perhaps it was just the timing and the person and the whole situation (we dated for about a year; nice guy but we were not meant for each other) — but the emotional trauma of that weekend kind of put me off big surprises.
Recently my friend MiniGinger asked why people spoiled things like stories and presents. Don’t they want to be surprised? And on first read-through I thoroughly agreed: who wants to know what’s in their wrapped package? Who wants to know the end of the movie before they see it? It’s so much more meaningful if you get all the emotion at once, in the order the creator designed! But if I were being totally honest… I’m one of those people. I’ve been known to read the entire plot of a 10-season series just to decide whether or not to watch it. There’s a certain series of murder mysteries that have only two major plot lines: either the guy you think is bad is the bad guy, or the guy you thought was good is the bad guy. I always skipped to the end to know which plot that book used. And even with presents I spoil things for myself — my family has always done wish lists for birthday and Christmas. I always made the list large enough that I’d be slightly surprised at my gift, but not so surprised that it would cause me emotional upheaval.
And therein lies the key. I think many people like surprises because they add extra emotion to any situation. It’s a shot of adrenaline that makes it easier to feel – and personally I believe we’re all at least somewhat addicted to feeling. But I am already one of the most emotionally expressive people in my family; I feel every little thing acutely. Oh sure, sometimes I put on a cool face, but deep down I am analyzing every tiny word and movement, and each little thing affects my emotions. I like it that way, to be honest. But because stories are not real and this life is difficult enough without undue emotional trauma, I like to be mentally prepared. So I read story synopses. I read reviews. I anticipate gifts and family surprises. Don’t get me wrong, I am pleased when someone wants to surprise me and I’m fine if they succeed — but I’ll probably do everything in my power to expect it so I don’t dissolve in a puddle of tears. (If your goal was to make me dissolve in a puddle of tears, well then fine, I guess. You get to suffer through seeing my blotchy red mascara-streaky face).
So I’m not a fan of big surprises, but some people really love them. This past Christmas my siblings and I pulled off a massive international surprise for my parents: they live in Germany and were visiting Schwes in Switzerland for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year, so the day after they arrived, Schwes told them they just had to see Zurich. While walking around the city they stopped in a Starbucks to find me waiting for them! Best. Day. Ever. I expected my mother to do a little bit of squealing, a lot of hugging, and perhaps some shouting and loud exclamations. Apparently I’ve never shocked her well before, because she went positively speechless. For Five. Whole. Minutes. (This is not normal). And she was unusually quiet the rest of the day, constantly sneaking glances at me and hugging me when I laughed and said, “I’m really here, Mama!” A few months later her emails spoke along the lines of “you can feel free to surprise me again any time, you know!”
Okay so what do we do with this information? Some people like surprises. Some don’t. Some people want to know the end of the story. Some don’t. If I were to offer some advice (and it’s my blog, so of course I’m going to offer it) – learn about your friends and family. Learn what they like. Be courteous when you recommend shows or books and don’t give spoilers. But if someone can’t handle surprises, be courteous and give them enough fair warning. It’s all about love, really. If you love this person, give them as much support as they need in order to fully appreciate their entertainment or gifts, whether that’s by telling them the major plot twist or by guarding the secret with your life.