On the Life of Wonder

by Adam J. Pearson

Each of us possesses an unspeakably powerful faculty, a capacity that our age often fails to recognize, let alone fulfill to its highest potential. This powerful force is the capacity for wonder.

A life stripped of wonder is a monotonous, insipid existence.  When we live without wonder, we scarcely live at all; we resemble ghosts, drifting through the world without realizing how astonishing it really is.  We seem like zombies who endlessly attempt to appease our ravenous appetites by wandering blindly from place to place, or like cogs in a machine, ever turning, but never finding fulfillment.  A life without wonder is a life hollowed out of the energetic vitality of being; it is a life reduced to dull routine.

What does it mean to live a life of wonder? In his novel Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder answers this question pointedly.  “To children,” Gaarder writes, “the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder.”  Those who retain the ability to wonder in adulthood combine the wisdom of childhood with the experience of maturity.

A life of wonder is a life in which we refuse to let life become stale.  It is a life in which we refuse to close our eyes to the astonishing nature of the world into which we have awoken.  In the experience of wonder, we feel ‘the mystical’ in Wittgenstein’s sense — “not the “how” of the world, but that it exists.”  For there could easily have been nothing at all, and yet there is a tremendous universe and it is aware of itself through us.  We are the vehicles of the universe’s wondering at itself.

It is tragic indeed when we forget the fact that “the eye that surveys the universe is the universe’s own eye,”  to quote Gaarder in Maya.  Gaarder himself speaks poignantly to this point when, in The Solitaire Mystery, he expresses “how terribly sad it [is] that people are made in such a way that they get used to something as extraordinary as living.” To live a life of wonder, we must rebel against this tendency to ‘get used to’ living by zooming the lenses of our consciousness in on the wonders of life.  To borrow a phrase from Dylan Thomas, we must “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” the light of wonder, which illuminates the whole world.

The everyday reveals its wonders when seen through the eyes of wonder.   Indeed, to a wondering mind and a wonder-filled heart, all things reveal their deep and unique value.  When we live a life of wonder, we do not walk by a flower and think “ah, a flower.  One among many. Another dull object in a dull, grey world.”  We see the flower and marvel at the fact that it exists at all.  We are astonished by its unique being, its vibrancy, its thriving life.  The same pulse of life that beats through our veins also pulsates through the flower’s leaves and stem.  As Albert Schweitzer said, “there is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.” When we wonder at the flower or the tree, we do not pass it over; we pause and allow it to unfold its full being to us.  We relate to ‘it,’ in Martin Buber’s terms, not as an ‘it,’ but as a Thou.  We meet it in authentic relationship.

Moreover, when we live a life of wonder, we live deeply.  We do not take life or being for granted.  We feel the warmth of our skin, the breath flowing in and out of our lungs, the life coursing through us.  We savor each bite of food, every mouthful of drink, every beautiful sight.  We see the world through the lens of “wow!” A life of wonder is a life committed to wonder despite our tendency to take the world for granted.  A life of wonder is a life that continually resists our habitual lack of appreciation for life.

Wonder not only awaken us, however, but also inspires.  All of humanity’s deepest philosophies, most penetrating sciences, most beautiful arts, and most fulfilling experiences find their root in wonder.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “men love to wonder, and that is the seed of science.” From wonder, all wonders spring.  A heart that wonders feels deeply; a mind that wonders opens itself to wisdom.  Indeed, wonder is an infinitely creative power that continually pushes us into deeper engagement with the world.  This engagement can take many forms; it can involve test tubes in the lab, contemplations in the park, expressions of care for the suffering.  When we open ourselves to wonder, wonder opens us to the world.

Jostein Gaarder likens the philosopher who vows to live a life of wonder to a flea hanging for dear life to the hair of a rabbit being pulled out of a magician’s hat.  He writes that “only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ they yell, ‘we are floating in space!’ But none of the people down there care.”  When we live a life of wonder, we vow to care.

The cosmic magic trick is the moment by moment unfolding of the universe.  The rabbit is the world.  And we are at once wrapped up in the trick and able to watch it taking place.  We might very well have never come into being at all; the tilt of the Earth might have been a little off, our planet might have been a little too close to the sun, our parents might never have met, our world might never have developed an atmosphere hospitable to life.  And yet, here we are.

This is a great wonder in itself; we are!  And we not only are, but are aware that we are.  We are awake to the dance of the cosmos, woven into the ever-changing tapestry of being.  We weave the world and are woven by the world.  We transform and are transformed.  We change beyond our greatest conceptions of how we might change; we are ever surpassing ourselves.  When we turn our thoughts to the way we move across the spinning globe, affecting ten trillion beings and being affected by ten trillion things, involved in the motions of ecosystems, the trajectory of a planet hurtling through space, the movement of one of billions of galaxies, we cannot but feel wonder.  When we stamp this wonder into our present moment experience of life, we live a life of wonder.  And for a life of wonder, the world is far from dull, and life, far from a chore.

Lao Tzu once said that “from wonder into wonder existence opens.” The nature of wonder is openness; openness to experience, to the vastness of the universe, to the vitality of life.  The more we wonder, the more we open; the more we open, the more we wonder.  Wonder is the master key that opens door after  door in the endless corridors of life.

Wonder evokes curiosity;
Curiosity reinforces inquiry;
Inquiry supports discovery;
Discovery furthers reflection;
Reflection deepens knowledge.

For this reason, Abraham Joshua Herschel wrote that “wonder, rather than doubt, is the root of knowledge.” When we follow the call of wonder, we often learn a great deal; wonder opens us to learning.  Thus, an Ancient Greek proverb reminds us that “wonder is the basis of wisdom.” Wonder moves us toward wisdom, but wonder is not only a preparatory step to wisdom; wonder is at the core of wisdom itself.  The wise life is filled with wonder, in the sense of awe, and wondering, in the sense of deeply reflecting on the world.  Or, as Alfred North Whitehead put the point, “philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”

Wonder need not be a solitary experience; indeed, sharing our wondering with others deepens our connections to them and allows us to benefit from their unique insights into life.  In the words of Will Durant, “the most interesting thing in the world is another human being who wonders, suffers and raises the questions that have bothered him to the last day of his life, knowing he will never get the answers.”  Wonder invites us to raise questions even though we are not promised final answers to the questions we raise.

Samuel Johnson believed that “all wonder is the effect of novelty on ignorance;” he was, like Socrates, keenly aware of how little human beings know and how much we have to learn.  The universe is always changing, always presenting us with novel stimuli, new things, and fresh experiences; because our knowledge is always incomplete and we are ever confronted with novelty, we never run out of opportunities to feel wonder at the world.  Therefore, the life of wonder never loses its ground; so long as there is a world, there will be wonder.

And wonder has its own rhythm, its own melody.  Rosemary Dobson put this point beautifully when she suggested that “wonder is music heard in the heart, is voiceless.” The emotion of wonder is a feeling of a deep vastness opening up within oneself; one feels one’s chest expanding with great feeling, but one is not able to encapsulate this feeling into words.  It seems so vast that no number of phrases, no compendium of concepts could ever hope to exhaust it.  Authentic wonder is, in fact, inexhaustible.  It is like a river that keeps on flowing, or, to borrow Plotinus’ phrase, like “a fountain ever on.” When we dive deeply into wonder, we find it a pool forever deep.

Why should we live a life of wonder, why besides its power to awaken us, to engage us, to inspire us, and to open us to the majesty of life? We should live a life of wonder because only in a life of wonder are we truly alive; as Albert Einstein once said, “he who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” As we learn to wonder, we learn to believe in ourselves; as we learn to believe in ourselves, we learn to deepen our wonder.  e. e. cummings had this insight in mind when he wrote that “once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” And it is revealing the fullness of who and what we are that most interests us; this constant revelation is part and parcel of a fulfilling life, the life to which we all aspire.

Where must we go to fully experience wonder? We can go anywhere, but we need not take a single step to find the place of wonder, which is right where we are, wherever we are.  As Saint Augustine once said, “men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”  There are innumerable wonders within and without us that await discovery.  We are all miners  surrounded on all sides by endless diamonds of the most resplendent kind.   If we knew we were encircled with what was precious on all sides, would we not seek to explore these jewels? The precious stones of wonder lie hidden in everything; in all things, the seeds of wonder lie waiting to sprout.  Attention is the water that brings the world to flower; wonder is its sun.

While we can seek wonder in the realities of the world, however, we need not limit ourselves to realities.  Stories and myths, films and virtual worlds, fictions and tales can also evoke the numinous powers of wonder.  Thomas Aquinas was keenly aware of the power of story to draw wonder from the human heart.  As he pointed out, “because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.”  Works of poetry and philosophy each evoke their own exquisite forms of wonder; their particular wonders resonate with different facets of our being.  These fields of human endeavour also share a common concern: deepening our experience.  Ray Bradbury had the importance of deepening  experience in mind when he enjoined us to “stuff [our] eyes with wonder, live as if [we’ll] drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

And this, in conclusion, is the true power of wonder; it enables us to really see the world.  The more we see the wonders of the world, the more wonders, we notice, there are to see.  Once we strike a match to the fuel of wonder, it continues to sustain itself, to keep itself ablaze.  We must only make the first plunge, the first dive, the first leap into wonder.  After that, wonder does the rest.

Though there are many things about which we are uncertain, one thing we do know, and that is that the life of wonder is a life that ever enriches and is enriched.  Deep wonder catches on; it is contagious, like wildfire.  The fruits of wonder–sciences, philosophies, arts, moments shared between people–transform the face of the world forever.  When we choose to live a life of wonder, we choose to take part in the universe’s grand dance of transformation, the dance of life, the waltz of being.   It is a dance that never ends, a dance at once perennial and eternal.  And wonder is the force that drives it forward.


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