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Brexit, hubris and the rediscovery of surprise

With the United Kingdom’s unexpected vote to pull out of the European Union there is a sense that everyone seems surprised. Even the people who themselves voted for the exit seem surprised.

A long time ago in a reality recently forgotten, there used to be surprise. There was surprise because there used to be risk. There was risk because there used to be danger. There was danger because there used to be the unknown.

And herein lies the problem. We’ve become uncomfortable with the unknown. Today the unknown has become a conceptual relic of an unenlightened, antiquated bygone era before space travel and Siri. In other words, we’ve begun to expect that we can know it all.

The current mindset of the world has been what I call managerial thinking, “How can we control what we know.” Remove the ambiguity, remove the unknown. Manage and control it, and everything will be fine.

Ah, hubris. I find all the European Union commotion interesting because the Brexit surprise reminds us that we’ve been here before, doesn’t it?

I’ve been reading pre-1850 journals of explorers and missionaries. In both of these genres I see a consistent similarity in the way these characters relate with the surprise of the unknown. Their everyday lives were a constant blend of ambiguity, danger and risk. The surprise of the unknown was not something they sought to conquer. It was not something to defy. It was not something to subjugate. It was not even something to flee. For them, the surprise of unknown was something to transcend. It was something to rise above. It was something to engage on different terms on a different plane altogether.

John Pitzel, a pioneer missionary in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the 1840s and 1850s wrote when treacherous weather on Lake Superior forced him to shelter:

I was thinking this morning that a person windbound on a desolate coast resembles a person bound for heaven, while navigating the dangerous sea of life. How often does he meet with opposing winds, when he can do nothing but stand still and see the salvation of God. In the midst of a vile world, which is no friend to grace, he often finds himself standing almost alone and forsaken with wind and tide against him. But his trust is in God. Like the skillful voyager, he holds himself ready to make the best of every hinderance. He keeps every inch of ground he has gained. In the calm, or when wind and waves are not too strong, he plies his oars and when the breeze is fair spreads his sails, rides over the proudest billows and bids the world adieu. When we are resting in camp we are acquiring strength for more arduous labor. And often when the child of God seems, to himself, to be accomplishing little or nothing for the world, he is, in reality, doing the most important work. The trial of faith is as necessary as anything else to the Christian. All that situated I often think of my dear companion and the little ones God has given us. But they give me no uneasy concern. I confidently leave them in the hands of God, believing that he will do which is best, both for them and me. Here then is my rock, my strength. (p. 252)

I have seen this type of story play out time and time again. These Great Explorers can transcend the unknown because they are able to rest assured, confident while within the surprising circumstances they find themselves. Is this often observed phenomenon simply a mental focus on a denial of reality? Is it a self-delusional religious crutch? Or is there something bigger going on here?

Around 1900 the rising industrial age began to signal an end to the age of exploration. Knowledge was more widespread than ever before in history. People began believing that transcending the unknown was inferior to an attempt conquer the unknown. Agnosticism and atheism surged. The enchantment of the unknown began to wane. The idea of tolerating uncertainty seemed ignorant and unnecessary when so much knowledge and control seemed to abound in the modernizing world. Why be surprised if you don’t have to? We can control the unknowns. We can manage it.

Hubris began its ascent again. We’ve been attempting to manage the surprise of the unknowns with greater sophistication for a hundred years. And this, to me, is the greatest self-delusional reality denial of all.

Whether it’s the Brexit vote or something more surprising, we might want to consider acknowledging that we are not in control. I believe that what we are experiencing now is not chaos, but simply a reminder that ambiguity and risk is all around us. The unknown is not something that we can control, but is something that we can transcend. There will always be unknowns. The challenge is learning to embrace the unknown, learn from it and let it be a surprising driver for new discoveries.

Thank you Brexit, for the rediscovery of surprise.

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