Life Surprises

There is a Woody Allen movie, Small Time Crooks, which tells the story of an amateur band of bank robbers. Allen’s character, nicknamed Brain, conceives a highly original plan to rent a store close to a bank, dig a tunnel under the ground, and emerge right in front of the bank’s vault. He gathers some fellow unskilled criminals, and they start digging the tunnel, while Allen’s wife runs a storefront cookie shop. The tunnel digging is a disaster – they run into a pipe and flood the basement with water; they read the map upside down and end up in a fitness store – but the cookie business does quite well, actually. People line up in this little shop for the best cookies in town, and as word spreads, multitudes come, there is media coverage, and soon a cookie empire is built. The band of criminals gets rich, unexpectedly rich – but from an honest cookie business.

woody-allen

Life throws some interesting surprises at us. Every now and then a door of opportunity flings wide open right when we were so busy working at something else. We were so engaged in a long dreamt project that we almost miss these little surprises that walk by. The most renowned violins in the world – the type of violin that Sherlock Holmes used to play in his books – were the product of a frustrated violin player, for instance. Antonio Stradivari worked hard to become a master violinist, but as he grew disappointed at his own limited talent, he discovered that he was quite good at making violins. Thus his seventeenth-century handmade pieces were unequalled for a long time even by industrially designed violins. A mediocre violin player became a master violin maker.

Or take the example of Augustine, the fourth-century professor of rhetoric. After a successful career that took him from his humble North African village to teaching posts in Carthage and Rome, Augustine came to Milan to hear an especially gifted speaker. As he sought to learn the art of communicating well, he was actually amazed by the content he heard there. Disclosed Augustine:

And I studiously listened to him–though not with the right motive–as he preached to the people. I was trying to discover whether his eloquence came up to his reputation, and whether it flowed fuller or thinner than others said it did… And, while I opened my heart to acknowledge how skillfully he spoke, there also came an awareness of how truly he spoke [1]

The worldview articulated by bishop Ambrose’s lips took Augustine by surprise. He was startled to find answers to his spiritual longings in a place he went only to learn more about speaking. Shifting his attention to the meaning of the words he heard, Augustine moved on to become one of the greatest theologians of all time.

These little life surprises, arriving suddenly, stealthily, unexpectedly, teach us to pay attention even to the most common of situations. A love which is not shared by the person we desire may be painful, yet produce a priceless insight into ourselves. A failure may yield valuable lessons for future projects. A conversation with a stranger may open our eyes to a whole new talent we were not aware we had. Talking with someone much older or much younger or much poorer than us might stretch our minds in a way books and university degrees can’t. We might just learn that we live in a universe more gracious and more benevolent than we thought, a place of discipline and hard work but also of little surprises and opportunities just around the corner, a reality being redeemed by providence, generosity, and grace. Even for bank robbing small time crooks.

René Breuel


[1] Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, ed. and trans. Albert Cook Outler (Mineola, New York:Dover, 2002), V.XIII-XIV.

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