Opinion Madonna King: Our lives have become less spontaneous. It’s time to revive the art of surprise

Madonna King: Our lives have become less spontaneous. It’s time to revive the art of surprise

Police have released dash-camera footage of a dangerous gender reveal. Video: Queensland Police
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Huge plumes of blue smoke billow from the exhaust of a red Holden Commodore doing burnouts on a public road.

People gather, taking photographs and video, as the ‘gender reveal’ fad moves onto the streets of Brisbane.

Now police are looking for the driver, believing the smoke might have hindered other motorists’ visibility.

Some will see it as a novel way to tell friends the expectant couple are expecting a boy.

Others, like Queensland Police, see it as bordering on being a public nuisance.

Either way, though, it just adds to the slow death of ‘the surprise’. You can’t mistake the big blue smoke.

Parents have sought to find out the gender of their child, long before this couple probably bought their first car.

But the way they decide to introduce their child into the world is just another example of how we now eschew surprises at every opportunity.

The bigger and bolder the better. No one should miss this!

That sense of anticipation or the fresh-eyed look of surprise is something increasingly confined to history books.

Lay-by is dead. AfterPay is where it is happening. Friends who used to grow flowers, say it’s easier now to buy them.

Even my ageing father-in-law no longer visits the TAB; online betting is at the touch of a button.

Postcards have become emails, so that we no longer race to the mailbox each day, like we might have years ago, to see if someone we loved had remembered us.

Couples have ‘heads of agreement’ over when one partner will ask for the other’s hand in marriage. “Let’s go overseas for one year, save up for the deposit and get engaged in two years.’’

We write a list of Christmas presents, to be delivered under the tree, and then tick them off as we open them.

Sometimes we even buy them ourselves, wrap them, and give the card to our partner to sign.

We don’t dare drop in on a neighbour, or a friend we haven’t seen for months. It’s bad manners. Now we call and lock in a visit.

Coffee dates and catch-ups, that game of tennis and the cold glass of chardonnay with the crew is now all marked on the family calendar.

Spontaneity is out. Scheduling is in.

Teens also now, in some cases, decide together when they might break up. That ensures they are able to snag an invitation to a particular school formal, or party.

Weekends away are planned months in advance. “Are you free Friday, in six weeks’ time at 7am?’’ One text of my recent texts reads. “Maybe we could catch up for breakfast?’’

We plan. Over-plan. Our wardrobes and our children’s activities. What we’ll have for dinner and when we’ll read what book.

That giddy sense of anticipation is lost. And perhaps we are all the poorer.

Is it because we are busier than we ever have been, and planning activities and downtime and holidays ensures we allow time to socialise?

Is it because COVID has drawn a curtain on certainty, and we want to look forward to catch-ups and coffee and walks with friends?

Or is it because we don’t want to be surprised? We want that coloured gift.

Yes, surprise can deliver shock, but it can also gift an excitement that it is just not possible to plan.

This week, while speaking at a school this week, a mother asked why her daughter no longer looked forward, as she had when she was a child.

She wondered whether our tweens and teens didn’t understand the beauty in delayed gratification.

Remember when we saw people, not FaceTimed them? Used encyclopaedias, not Google. Pored over holiday brochures, rather than flicked through Instagram to decide where to go?

Technology has helped us in so many ways. But it has also been the death of anticipation and surprise and delayed gratification.

One school counsellor tells her students how we used to take photographs “in the old days’’. Remember?

Firstly, lining up the focus because it wasn’t automatic. And then waiting until all 12 or 24 or 36 photographs were taken. Then you could get it ‘developed’.

Downloading or uploading didn’t exist; to see the photos, the camera had to be dropped off at a shop or a pharmacy, where the door of the camera was opened and the film removed.

It was a week or so later, and with a wonderful sense of anticipation, that we’d return – with money – to collect a wonderful surprise.

Red eyes couldn’t dampen smiles. It didn’t matter that your little brother was out of focus. Or that none of the photographs were Photoshopped or really picture-perfect.

Each image was a delightful surprise. A moment in time, that otherwise would be forgotten.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find that sense of anticipation again?