For those that have been or will take part in GISHWHES, thanks for joining me in this strange and wonderful game. For those who think this childishness is not for them, read on. Consider this your letter of seduction.
What is GISHWHES? On the surface it's the world’s largest scavenger hunt. Just below the surface, GISHWHES is about creating art, pushing boundaries, perpetrating acts of kindness and, ultimately, redefining our perception of "the possible.” Participants have collectively broken 5 Guinness world records, committed over 93,000 random acts of kindness and fed thousands of the homeless. Perhaps just as importantly, they have been officially rebuked by NASA, transmuted watermelons into high fashion, forced airports to close because of floating Christmas trees in flight paths, perplexed Larry King and constructed sculptural masterpieces from sanitary napkins.
I served as grand marshal of my first scavenger hunt a few years ago on a lark. What is a lark you might ask? I don’t know. Hold on, I’ll look it up: it’s a bird with streaky plumage. Ah, yes! It’s also, “something done for fun, something mischievous or daring; an amusing adventure or escapade.” That definition seems to nicely encapsulate our first hunt. People pitched tents on traffic islands and children swam in tubs full of cranberries. GISHWHES is a lark; it’s fun, it’s mischievous, and it’s occasionally daring. But in conducting GISHWHES over the past few years, I’ve noticed something else arise in myself, something beyond “larkness”—a truly exhilarating joy. And when I examine what it is that elevates this experience for me, something stands out. It’s something that has stuck with me for the past few years, and it’s an idea that has grown stronger with each incarnation of GISHWHES...
In playing this game, this GISHWHES, we are briefly disrupting the normal order of things. When we see a nun, arms raised, gleefully racing down a waterslide, our world is momentarily shaken. We respond by laughing at these incongruous things. But who says that nuns shouldn’t be on waterslides? Who says we shouldn’t try to talk to astronauts on the space station? Who says we shouldn’t tour particle accelerators in costume? By doing these unexpected things we’re actually in a strange way being reminded that life is full of possibility. A nun on a waterslide is a reminder that we don’t need to “fit in." A nun on a waterslide is a reminder that we do not need to be confined by an arbitrary normalcy. We can choose freedom. We can carve out our own path. We can actually talk to a homeless person on the sidewalk or we can gather the courage to sing in public. An entirely different version of reality is open to us if we make ourselves available to it.
In adulthood opportunities for wonder are curtailed. We often unwittingly sign on to a set of interpretations, rules for behavior, and ideas about our world and ourselves. We go into a shopping mall, pay the cashier, and leave the store. We know how the interaction will go; we’re on autopilot. And decades from now, when we lie breathing our last breaths on artificial respirators, we may wonder:
“What was that? Was that a life? Was my life something that I did or was my life something that was done to me?”
The other day I was walking with my three-year-old son when he saw a decorated Christmas tree in a shop window. His mouth dropped open in sheer delight. He was awestruck and it was a delight for a father to behold - a textbook example of “childlike wonder” in its purest form. As I review the submissions for GISHWHES each year, I can’t tell you how many photos and videos I see where grown men and women have the same expression as my three-year-old on their faces. Perhaps we should call it “grownup-like wonder”. Something happens when we shock ourselves with the unexpected. Seeing a flying Christmas tree, even if just for an instant, off autopilot, it causes us to pause and for a moment really see the world around us.
So maybe this hunt is helping to wake us up from our stupor of normalcy just a little bit. Maybe it’s giving us a chance to remember that the real possibilities open to us at any given moment are limited only by our imagination. At the very least, this lark, this GISHWHES, has given us the chance to see a nun go down a waterslide, for which I will always be grateful.