Awaken the lost sense of wonder
We are living in serious times. All around is anger and fear, stereotypes and conspiracy theories. People wade through the heap of illusions and lies in search of scraps of truth.
We are burdened with systemic racism. White supremacists are emboldened. A preponderance of the population stands before the prerogative of the rich and their control of political power. And we are challenged to take the fragile environmental health of the planet seriously. Above these constraints arise the incessant questions: which side are you on? Who are your friends? Who are your enemies?
However, if rekindled, there is an aspect of human nature that can blur the line between “sides” and refocus people’s perceptions of “the enemy.” This element of human nature has atrophied in contemporary times. However, it remains essential for poets, artists, philosophers, scientists and theologians. It can also improve the efficiency of politicians and enlighten relations between the population.
This human attribute is the beginning of knowledge, science, faith and curiosity. According to author, activist and human rights defender, Valarie Kaur, this unique human capacity is accessible to everyone. It is the sense of wonder.
The wonder is discovered in the ancient stories illustrated in the constellations of stars. We can imagine these ancient peoples, having been inspired by the wonders of the sky, looking down to see the wonders of the earth – the vast land and sea, the intricacies of flora and fauna and the wonders of the humanity.
Today, the awe of some people still begins under the stars. Contemporary astronomy reminds us that we have seen the light of the immense energy of the stars reaching us for billions of light years. We wonder about our existence in such a small place and for such a short time. It is a wonder to realize that plants, animals, and humans are nothing but stardust and the water of the earth. The vast night sky still awakens the capacity for wonder.
However, today a significant percentage of people, surrounded by electric lights, will never experience the wonder of wandering under the night sky. In addition, there are many economically or otherwise disadvantaged people who cannot take the time to walk under the stars. Just to survive, they are consumed by extended hours of work to overcome systemic injustice, provide food and shelter for families, finance and care for their sick. These people need help to acquire the gift of wonder. It is incumbent on those of us who are privileged not only to work for justice, but also to bring the wonder of human existence into our communities.
Experiencing the night sky is just the start. Take the time to go to the top of a mountain to admire the wonders of the expanse of hills, river valleys, deserts, green forests, ocean waves. Follow an ant that brings something twice its size and weight back to the colony. Know the meaning of wonder in the birth of a child. Know the meaning of wonder in the construction of majestic skyscrapers or the complexity of manufacturing machines.
Discover the human genome or the discovery of a new vaccine. Marvel at the life of a bee hive, the repertoire of songs of a mockingbird, the peas in pods. Or read Until the end of time by physicist Brian Greene. Let yourself be enchanted as he describes the human brain as “a collection of teeming particles without mind, thought and emotion” that create consciousness, emotions and reasoning. If we pay attention, anything we can see, hear, smell, touch, smell, or reason can be a stimulus for wonder.
The sense of wonder can be inspired by friends and neighbors and also by the stranger or the enemy. I was in the occupied Palestinian territory of Israel where I was with a Palestinian farmer overlooking his dry, stone-strewn farmland threatened by the expansion of an illegal Israeli settlement. I have seen land that is arid, at risk, impossible to cultivate. However, Abu Assam showed me the wonder. As he carefully watched the drip irrigation of his olive trees and watered his vegetable garden with a bucket, he said: “This is the most fertile land in the world!” I had only seen desolation. Abu Assam showed me his wonder of a land of milk and honey.
Back home in New Hampshire, there’s a little troubled church. Members noted needs in the community. With no discernible finances or indications of success, within a year they created a thrift store, pantry, large amount of firewood and a roster of qualified volunteers to help needy people with electricity problems, plumbing and carpentry. They became known as “The Needle Threaders”, demonstrating that it is possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. It was a wonder for the giver and the recipient.
Then there’s The Peoples Church of Chicago, located in a one-room apartment neighborhood. 50 faithful, in a building that can hold more than 2,000, applaud each announcement of the offering. The opportunity to donate their money and their quarters gives them dignity. They are amazed that their small change can do so much for the poor neighborhood. Their cheerful applause is a wonder that I always carry with me.
You see, a sense of wonder weakens the urge to take sides. Wonder reveals our kinship with fragile people living in an unfathomable universe. There is no sense of wonder in systemic racism or political narratives that cloud the truth. There is nothing surprising in the struggle for a living wage or in the confusion of medical care. There is nothing surprising about coercive violence or military postures. The sense of wonder comes from paying attention to the stars, the earth, and the people who are the offspring of the earth.
Valarie Kaur says it takes an act of will to awaken the “wonder” within. Choosing to release the inner wonder is to begin to see clearly the amazing world and universe of which we are a part. This “act of will” requires long-term commitment. It is not a quick fix to our current problems. It takes the patience of cosmic time.
Like the fire of the stars taking billions of light years to reach us, generations of growing wonder could light our way to a future era of empathy, fairness, love, justice, peace and environmental health. We are the cosmic dust that can make this happen – a wonder to behold!
(John Buttrick lives in Concord. He can be reached at [email protected].)