Wonder, part 2

Wonder – the type of wonder I’m talking about -- is a kind of falling in love: with our world, with ourselves, with the experience of being alive. Wonder is typically expressed in the form of a question, which might fool us into thinking an explanatory answer is being sought. It is not. The point of love is to love, not to explain it, figure it out, or solve it. The point of wonder is likewise not to get an explanation, solution, or answer. The point of wonder is to wonder – to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe -- bounded by humility, by gratitude, and by joy.

One of the questions for you this month for taking up in your Journey Groups is: "What is your number 1 source of wonder?" Is it a starry sky? A mountain top view? A wide expanse of trees at the peak of autumn foliage?

There are contexts we can place ourselves in that encourage wonder. And then sometimes wonder descends upon us in the midst of the perfectly ordinary. Thomas Merton wrote about an amazing experience of wonder he had in 1958 on a street corner in Louisville.

Merton, then age 43, was a Trappist monk who had spent most of the previous 17 years at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky – most of that in silence. On a rare trip to Louisville, about an hour’s drive from the Abbey, he had a sudden and stunning experience of wonder. He described it in his journal:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness,...The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.... This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: ‘Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.’ It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes:... A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. They are not ‘they’ but my own self. There are no strangers! Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed ... I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
That’s a powerful wonder. How did that happen to Thomas Merton? I raised the question earlier: Why do we have experiences like that? What practical function could they serve? Why would natural selection favor a capacity for such experience? We might also ask the opposite question: Why doesn’t it happen to more of us more often? Why isn’t wonder a constant, or at least greater proportion, of life? Why do we not “pass through the world open-mouthed with amazement and joy”? (Tallis.)

We are surrounded by, submerged within, wonders of sight, and sound, and smell, the wonder of every single thing, and of all things together – of what Philip Larkin called “the million-petalled flower of being.” Is not our proper state of mind one of “metaphysical intoxication”? So many wonders and yet so little wondering. We perish for want of wonder, thought Chesterton, though we are surrounded continuously by wonders. Whatever the mysterious process by which we became the sorts of beings with the capacity for wonder, why aren’t we exercising that capacity ALL. THE. TIME?

Daily life presents barriers to wonder. The barriers to wonder include distress – hunger, pain, illness, bereavement – and stress – busy-ness, tension, anxiety. As Raymond Tallis writes:
“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.”
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 our diversions 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. These, then, are the three main barriers to wonder:
(1) the purposive focus of work;
(2) a similarly purposive focus on our diversions, and, when neither of those is happening,
(3) 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 appreciatively of child-like wonder, but most of us 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 boredom precludes wonder – just as wonder precludes boredom. We can’t make ourselves have experiences like Thomas Merton had in Louisville 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.

The way to cultivate wonder is with a spiritual practice. Indeed, what makes a practice a spiritual practice is that it cultivates wonder. Continual mindfulness of death, Raymond Tallis points out, is conducive to wondering at life.

Over many centuries – as the development of human civilization afforded the leisure to pursue wonder, that wonder led us to create art, as a way of expressing our wonder. Wonder led us create religion, as way to tell a story about awesome creation, and to have rituals to reinforce the wonder. Wonder led us at last to create science – the exploration of nature’s wonders.

Writes Jesse Prinz:
“For the mature mind, wondrous experience can be used to inspire a painting, a myth, or a scientific hypothesis. These things take patience, and an audience equally eager to move beyond the initial state of bewilderment....“Art, science, and religion, are inventions for feeding the appetite that wonder excites in us. They also become sources of wonder in their own right, generating epicycles of boundless creativity and enduring inquiry.”
That’s a long way from a Chimp staring at a waterfall with no way to describe it. From time to time we all need to reconnect with that original experience, the seed from which art, religion, and science all grow – and just sit at the foot of a waterfall. Just sit and gaze.

May we all find or take time to do so.


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