“No one chasing after a bus has the time to be astonished at the intricate coordination of everyday life that ensures that buses run to timetables and that we can act in accordance with goals that are at once singular and abstract.” (Raymond Tallis)A focus on caring for others, doing good in the world, requires solving the problems that need solving, focusing on the practical needs. This reduces the world around you to two categories. Everything is either an instrument that will be helpful for your purpose or an obstacle that threatens to thwart your purpose.
It is a noble thing to have goals, purposes, to pursue accomplishment – at least, it is when those goals and accomplishments involve making the world better, easing suffering, improving the overall quality of life of the inhabitants of this planet. We need, and we take, breaks from our work – and that’s where we can cultivate a wonder that might even linger when we return to work, coloring our tasks with an abiding background radiation of peace and delight.
Unfortunately, modern life encourages us to make our leisure as busy as our work. We line up the most high-quality diversions we can and then make our free time as rushed as our work time. There’s hiking, kayaking, bicycling, tennis or some fun form of exercising. There are things to see: a play, a concert, an art exhibit, movies. There are novels to read and whole seasons of intriguing television shows to binge watch.
“Even the most elevated pleasures, designed to open us up to the world in such a way that we might wonder at it, may be assimilated into the flow of unthinking dailiness.” (Tallis)We work frenetically and then play frenetically because if we don’t we might be . . . bored.
Ah, boredom. The three main barriers to wonder are the purposive focus of work, a similarly purposive focus on the quality of our diversions, and, when neither of those is happening, allowing ourselves to be bored. Boredom says that
“indifference is the appropriate response to things around us. The ordinary is indeed ordinary. To take it for granted is precisely the way to take it. There is the uneasy sense that, though we urge it on ourselves and on others, wonder is somehow insincere, fake, sentimental. After all, a state you can enter only when it’s convenient, and which is convenient only when there’s nothing serious or important going on, must itself seem nonserious or unimportant.” (Tallis)We speak of child-like wonder, and though we sometimes say nice things about child-like wonder, most of us secretly would rather be known as a serious adult: productive, on the one hand, and erudite, on the other. Boredom is for serious people, who expect or want or need life to give them serious work and serious play. Boredom makes that demand and signals that it is not being met.
But if Boredom is an obstacle to wonder, then the cultivation of wonder is the antidote to boredom. We can’t make ourselves have experiences like Thomas Merton had at the corner of 4th and Walnut. We can only cultivate – nurture the slow growth of the wonder plant, not knowing what shape it may take as it grows, facilitating a power that, though we nurture, we do not control.
I could tell you that the way to cultivate wonder is with a spiritual practice, but that would only be tautological because a spiritual practice is anything that cultivates wonder. I’d only be saying that the way to cultivate wonder is to do something that cultivates wonder.
Continual mindfulness of death, Raymond Tallis points out, is conducive to wondering at life. (A point The Liberal Pulpit has also made -- SEE HERE.) It raises the question, though: how does one become able to sustain continual mindfulness of death? Perhaps that is not a question for a definite answer – but a mystery to be lived.
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This is part 3 of 3 of "Wonder of Wonders"
Part 1: Two Kinds of Wonder
Part 2: The Point of Wonder