The unexpected. Unexpected is a word I have been hearing lately. It pretty much sums up some of the things happening in my life right now. Surprised, yet surprised by joy!
I think that marking final assignments and exams turned my brains into mush. I haven’t been able to engage with a book in over a month, but school is out and my brain is recovering! During my ‘break’ from reading (well, reading things not written by teenagers) I was trolling around online to find some new books for my summer reading adventure. I stumbled unexpectedly across Helen Humphrey’s book Coventry. When I picked it up from the Library, I was glad to see that it was a short novel because it has been the perfect way to jump into my summer reading!
Things happen unexpectedly in life. Meeting a new romance. Losing a job. Finding a new friend. In her novel Coventry, Humphreys takes her readers on a journey by introducing three characters who stumble their way through an evening of the unexpected.
Harriet, Mauve, and Jeremy wander their way around Coventry, UK the night of a heavy Nazi blitz. In a night of horror, terror, pain, disbelief, and shock, all three characters are unexpectedly connected. Mauve and Harriet met briefly on the first double-decker bus in Coventry during WWI and are reunited in a dewy field outside of the city on their way to safety. Harriet and Jeremy are fire-watches together at the Cathedral; Jeremy reminds Harriet of her dead husband and happens to be the son of Mauve. Throughout the novel, all three try to understand the unexpected pain and trauma they are witnessing as the bombs destroy the city and the lives of the people around them.
How does one deal with the unexpected? Whether good news or horrible news, we are never truly ready for life’s surprises, hence why they surprise us. We spend time building order and routines, yet when something comes along that upsets the order, we have a reaction that we feel deep within every part of our selves. One of my favorite sections from the novel describes Mauve’s reaction to be separated from her son and seeing her life crumble before her:
“Nothing that will come after tonight will be her known world. If she and Jeremy survive tonight, there will be the struggle of beginning again. This is heard enough at the best of times, but in the middle of a war it will be almost impossible to bear” (pg 120).
Rebuilding. Recreating. Readjusting. The prefix ‘re-‘ means again, a repetition. With the unexpected comes the need to ‘re-‘ everything. New goals, new plans, new dreams, new routines.
As I think about the unexpected and the reactions we have, I can’t help but think about what N.T. Wright says in his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters:
“Virtue . . . is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t ‘come naturally’–and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required ‘automatically,’ as we say. On that thousand and first occasion, it does indeed look as if it ‘just happens’; but reflection tells us that it doesn’t ‘just happen’ as easily as that” (pg 20-21).
If Wright is correct and our every day, seemingly small, choices build up our character, then how we react to a surprise differs for everybody, depending on the choices and reflections they make. In the novel, Jeremy is quick to help others, as it is clear that this is how he lives his life. Mauve is quick to move around restlessly, unable to trust others, which is consistent with her previous behaviours. And Harriet. Harriet painfully wanders, looking for a place to belong.
I am left wondering about the unexpected. Can we prepare for surprises through our every day choices? Do we have to live by that advice to ‘hope for the best, but prepare for the worst’? Perhaps practicing a life of compassion, grace, mercy, patience, and love would help with reacting genuinely to situations. The only thing we can expect is the unexpected. The only way to prepare is to practice the way we want to react. We all played with the Jack-in-the-Box as children and loved the surprise. Maybe instead of dread, we should see surprises as something joyful. Although in Humphrey’s novel there are a lot of horrible surprises, there is some joy: unexpected meetings can lead to new relationships and new opportunities. Life goes on, even after it has been destroyed.
“Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.” (Samuel Johnson)
You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.” (James 4:14-15)