“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect”, Oscar Wilde declared, with his characteristic shrewdness and foresight. Indeed, the phrase ‘Expect the unexpected’ chimes everywhere in our society, from the ads in the Underground to political slogans; it is what we are tacitly told whenever we enter a cinema, buy a new phone, or check the news; it is at the root of our thirst for travelling, our constant desire for new things, friends and experiences.
Nonetheless, since ancient times humans have always approached the unexpected with trepidation: we fear the unexpected, whether it presents itself in the form of an illness, the loss of a job, or simply events not working out as we had planned.
But it would be a mistake to distinguish between different flavours of ‘the unexpected’, reducing the issue to a matter of good and bad luck: experience teaches us that great good can emerge from unfortunate accidents, and conversely that, because of bias or pride, one can refuse to accept unexpected gifts.
Moreover, and more deeply, the unexpected scares us, whether good or bad, because it threatens our ‘safety’ (as Buddhist thought illuminates). We dislike the unexpected because we want to be in control. We are afraid of it because we don’t want things (and people) to hit us, strike us, wound us. We don’t want them to be different from what we have in mind, from what we think they should be, from our images of happiness, from what we understand, know or believe.
We fear the unexpected, and yet we cannot live without it: this contradiction is at the origin of our paradoxical aspiration to control the unexpected, to select the unexpected we want, when we want it. This is probably one of the most typical delusions of our age, similar in many respects to the myth of virtual relationships or, as Rowan Williams described last year in his keynote address, to the myth of autonomy in an interconnected reality.
Indeed, the fear of the unexpected is related to that fear of ‘otherness’ which was at the centre of London Encounter 2016. This is because the unexpected is always experienced as a relationship with something ‘other’ than us, which hits us and wounds us. The fear of the unexpected is therefore another face of the desire for independence and control, which conflicts with our need for a relationship and ultimately freezes us in our presumptions.
We saw last year that no man is an island; and, as Rowan Williams said, this is not just a stubborn evidence of reality, but our greatest possibility to discover, with wonder, what reality is made of and what ultimately we are made for.
This year we want therefore to sail away off the island, aware of the uncertainties of our world and of our own frailty, and yet hopeful that every unexpected event, good or bad, can become an opportunity to learn something new, discover something greater, and find unexpected companions on our journey.
In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.”
The London Encounter is organised by a group of friends who met through the Catholic Movement, Communion and Liberation.
Our faith makes us want to engage in a dialogue with everyone, of whatever religion, background, political persuasion or tradition, about what it means to be human, what truly fulfils us and how best we can face the challenges of daily life. We believe that only by sharing our experience in a spirit of openness and mutual respect can we build the common good together
The London Encounter is organised through a charitable trust, Manalive, Charity number 1106302