Why we don’t like surprises in real life (a Christmas confession)

I’m not that fond of surprises, not even at Christmas.

I like the idea of a surprise, but I don’t actually like the reality of it. Not knowing what will happen stresses me out. It always has. Maybe you’re the same? I’ll bet you love surprising other people at Christmas but you’d rather pick out your own gifts?

Okay, maybe it’s just me.

As a kid, I remember worrying about whether or not I would get what was on my birthday and Christmas lists. I worried about my mom’s understanding of the importance of the things I had requested. (In the days before internet shopping, it was imperative that parents bought those special toys the moment they hit the shelves, or the opportunity might be lost forever.)

Due to these reasons, I became an expert snooper and re-wrapper. I discovered that if you used only one edge of the scissors, you could carefully swipe along tape and unwrap just about anything without tearing or cutting the paper itself. Then you could re-wrap the gift, following the fold lines, and re-tape over the same pieces of tape, lining up the edges and cutting it the precise length of the original piece. Nobody was the wiser.

And I could stop worrying about what was or wasn’t inside.

It’s a control obsession, honestly. And here’s how to fix it (not that you’re a control freak):

Investigate joy

Start snooping. Not for what you want but for what you need.

Here’s a snooping story to show you what I’m talking about:

One Christmas during my Barbie doll-playing years (which lasted way longer than I will confess in print), I was dying to have the Sindy Dining Room Set. It was a lovely plastic Queen Anne table and 4 chairs for Barbie doll-sized dolls. Its accessories included two candelabra and a three-piece place setting for four: flatware, goblets, cups and saucers, and white plates with gold edges. The disappointment of not receiving it as a Christmas gift alarmed me. Okay, I was obsessed over getting it.

After some careful hinting and probing, I eventually deduced that my mother had finished her Christmas shopping, but I could not ascertain whether she had purchased the Sindy Dining Room set or not. Following some casual visits into her bedroom, I realized our presents were already wrapped and stacked in her closet.

So one crisp December afternoon while I played with my Barbies (who did not own a dining room table), I decided to satisfy my suspense. My mother had left the house to run errands, so I stealthily tip-toed into her bedroom and opened her closet door. Sure enough, the wrapped gifts were still there. I analyzed the sizes of boxes and I shook each one resembling the size of a Barbie-sized dining room set. When I heard the rattle of individually-bagged plastic pieces in one of the boxes, I prayed I had found the one! (We snoopers are also expert rattlers.)

I carefully unwrapped the package, using the particular set of unwrapping skills that I had acquired over time, swiping a single scissor blade along the taped edges and cautiously sliding the paper away to avoid tearing it on the box’s corners.

The box held a picture of a Sindy doll, dining elegantly at a Queen Anne dining table, sitting in a Queen Anne chair, holding a goblet to her lips. My pulse quickened. I wavered for a moment.

Then with the scissors, I pulled the blade along the end of the taped box and opened the flap. Out slid several bags of unassembled table and chair pieces. Additional small bags contained little knives, forks, spoons, goblets, and plates. They were even more elegant than I had imagined. My heart flip-flopped.

I examined the baggies. Folded and taped on one end. Easy-peasy.

I went to work, un-taping baggies without ripping them, assembling furniture, arranging the chairs around the table, setting the places. I felt supreme happiness and only the tiniest twinge of guilt.

After a lovely time of assembly and play, I commenced in un-assembling, re-bagging, re-taping, and re-wrapping everything. I carefully stacked the package where I had found it. I closed the closet door.

Relief washed over my heart. Everything would be okay. I had investigated, yes. I felt joyful about my discovery, yes. But then something else happened…

Admit the damage that control creates

Something unique and revelatory occurred that afternoon in my mom’s closest. I had robbed my mom of the look of excitement on my face Christmas morning when I would open that package.

I stole her joy because I enjoyed the discovery when she wasn’t present, and at the wrong time.

I had not honed my acting skills to the same extent that I had honed by re-wrapping skills. When I opened the dining room set in front of my mother on Christmas morning, I realized the damage I had caused. I realized that the joy of unwrapping was also my mother’s pleasure. I gave the best Oscar-winning performance I could, but I’m sure my face betrayed me.

I never snooped again.

Trade control for trust

Worrying about what we’re getting for Christmas seems silly now. However, the fear of disappointment in life is still a reality for me, and I expect it is for everyone else. The difference is that as adults, we possess the capacity to get most of what we want, when we want it, without resorting to covert operations. We merely structure our lives around our expectations and direct our actions toward fulfilling them. We have the power (or at least we attempt to possess the power) to circumvent many of the agonizing waiting periods that life demands.

And then life surprises us with something we don’t want. Like 2020.

No one had control over anything. Not getting sick, not government mandates, not loneliness, not depression, not the grief over death and racism, not the election process. All of us are left standing in front of a closet that we can’t get into. We want to unwrap what’s waiting there, but we can’t quite manage it.

To retain some sense of normalcy, we feel compelled to boycott everything connected to 2020. We settle for something safe, something different, something detached from our heartache, disappointment, and disillusionment. We try to control something new. We assume different is better and safer. Who cares about the gifts in the closet, anyway?

And we overlook the wonder that comes from not knowing. The joy that we must bring to God’s face when he sees us wait and trust and believe that He knows what’s happening, and He’s not worried. We rob him of what he’s planned for us because we’re not sure He knows what we want. And we are quite sure we don’t want what’s being offered us.

We cheat Him, and we cheat ourselves of the wonder that a trusting relationship supplies.

This Christmas and New Year, instead of hitting the re-start button in every area of your life, let’s all take the time to consider what’s happened to us this year. What we’ve learned or failed to learn? Where have we found joy and growth? Where has God been wholly present in our lives? Where have we missed Him working?

Joy is most present in wonder, thankfulness, and grace.

It doesn’t show itself through controlled existence.

Take time to wonder and wait. That’s the real Christmas story. The greatest surprise in history was full of worry, fear, danger, and disappointment.

Joy visited those who believed that something wonderful was happening, whether they understood it or not.

Other Christmas Posts you might enjoy:

Handling joy and grief at the holidays

How to keep the wonder in Christmas

Handling disappointment at Christmas

5 Things you don’t want for Christmas

10 things I love about Christmas

The tradition of making Christmas cookies

Don’t lose heart

7 prayers of Christmas

9 prayers for Christmas hope

A prayer of hope for the holidays

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