Surprise and imagination can be both wonderful experiences and dangerous concepts. We’re trained early in life to find surprise in the world around us, usually juxtaposed against the wilds of nature. We are often encouraged to “think outside the box” and to reimagine reality in ways that can fundamentally change the way we view the world and our role within it. Nothing is out of reason. Everything is possible.
However, there are also inherent dangers in dreaming. Surprise can cut both ways: We expect to be surprised and are fooled instead; Our imagination actively turns to paranoia where we believe the world roiling around us is dangerous and noxious against us.
Harvard economist Thomas Schelling said we must be especially aware and on-point when it comes to war and surprise and imagination:
“Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost. It includes gaps in intelligence, but also intelligence that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the alarm that has gone off so often it has been disconnected … finally, as at Pearl Harbor surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.”
But Schelling’s foreword and Wohlstetter’s book are less about the failure of imagination, than something very different — systemic bureaucratic confusion, ordinary human distractions, and an overwhelming glut of information with no clear idea of what anyone should be looking for. Blame isn’t heaped in any one place. Wohlstetter scrutinizes what seems to be the entirety of the public record and recounts and reconstructs failings at every level of the military and government.
Here’s where everything gets messy. Our surprise no longer surprises us. We lose our wonder to the sobriety of tragedy. Our imaginations have run wrong and plowed us into a harrowed fallow. We have rightly chosen the path of dull living, based on a bloody and mismatched historical record, in order to neither be humble nor vulnerable again, and in that unwise exchange of freedom of the mind for safety of the body, we have lost the temerity of our wilding humanity.
The tempering of human expectation has always been the one conundrum we have never quite yet be able to solve or salvage. If we think too much, we are stuck in an unsanctioned, and unsanctified, dreamworld. If we act without thought, we are merely repurposed mechanicals who move from one event to another without purpose or sensation. We lose the holy to forsake the ephemeral.
Can we be surprised without first being vulnerable? I don’t think it’s possible. To sense wonder, you have to be open to the unknown and be unwilling to know every answer. Surprise can wound and uplift, but there may be more danger in the piercing than in the inspiration.
Is it possible to imagine without becoming frightened? What tools do we have left to ratchet down the terror of an exponential, extrapolating, paranoia that fools us into believing we are merely being manipulated? The full-stop tensioner salve is direct experience, but the young and the deceitful have no need to ever experience a brake or a pulley back into reality because those limiters caustically debride their functional individual notion that only the idea matters and not the repercussion of an amplified execution.