Do you know what one thing interrupts a person’s focus and redirects it to something new, and for a moment causes muscles to tense, especially in the neck? This thing also lowers your heart rate, increases blood pressure, and lights up pleasure centers in your brain. Can you guess?  Surprise!  When a person experiences something unexpected, these changes occur automatically and any time you are surprised, you go through four phases.

First, you freeze. I remember Robert throwing me a surprise party when I finished my Post-Bac degree in Elementary Education many years ago. When I walked into the dining room at Richardson’s Mexican Restaurant and heard people shout “Surprise!” I literally – froze. During this stage, your brain waves spike because your attention is pulled to the object that came out of the blue. And your face registers a puzzling expression. It’s what researchers call the “duh face”…honestly! As a recipient of many surprises, I’m very familiar with this look.  

The Napoleon Dynamite ultimate “duh” face!

Second, you analyze what you feel. Your brain flips through a wide range of thoughts and questions as it tries to figure out what is going on and how you feel about it.  A person can feel delight, fear, or even anger. At my party I remember feeling happy, but overwhelmed, so I began to do what I normally do, and that is, cry.  Tears of joy, of course!

Third, you shift gears and accept what is happening. My expectations for that December evening suddenly changed from a low-key quiet dinner with our friends Donna and John, to an evening filled with music, a buffet, and congratulatory conversations, all enjoyed with my school colleagues, mentor teachers and friends!

And fourth, you want to share. Your brain actually becomes overly activated when startled, and the way to destress is to talk about the event with others. In my case, I was able share with all of those who came to celebrate.

From my journal: December 14, 1999  Fountain Hills, Arizona

“I should’ve known something was up as we did a detour through the kitchen! In the back room, I suddenly recognized friends from ASU, a few of my mentors and friends…was stunned!

Me and Kingston Raycraft, one of my mentor teachers

As you’d guess, there are people who love surprises and others who do not.  While I love finding an unexpected handwritten letter in the mailbox, or having someone give me a bouquet of flowers, I prefer not to be thrusted into the spotlight. Generally, people who love unforeseen events are, as you’d expect, extroverted.  These are the people who thrive on spontaneity and adventures…think Bear Grylls, Christopher Columbus, and…Robert.  Introverted planners like me, just aren’t as keen on them. However, there are two sides to surprises and they are felt differently, depending on whether you are the giver, or the receiver.

Earlier this August Robert turned 65, and a couple months previously, I started thinking what I could do to honor him and celebrate this milestone. With the latest CO-VID variant still lingering and travel being a pain these days, I knew a party was out.  But knowing how much he enjoys get togethers, I had to do something, something fun, that would catch him off guard. So I decided to create a good old-fashioned slide show with the help of friends and family, and set up a Zoom call for all to see it. He thought just our friends Donna and John (always our cover – ha!) were going to log on and toast to him. Then, as each person appeared, Robert’s smile became a little bit broader. At the start of the slide show he was wide-eyed and at the end, teary-eyed. He said he had no idea and then commented on how long it must have taken me to put it all together. (Over a month!) Knowing him, I knew Robert would love it. And even more special, it was a gift not just from me, but all of us. Not surprising, surprising the usual surpriser, was as nice as a surprise for him, as it was for me, as well as for everyone who joined in!

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