Access to Wonder
It happened to every single one of us alive today. We were born into this world and survived. In a way, the universal nature of that experience makes it ordinary. Yet the experience of giving birth is anything but ordinary. For many of us it is full of wonder.
I remember our son Andrew’s birth with a strong sense of tearful wonder. My wife Philomena showed impressive determination as she pushed when coached to do so. She broke little blood vessels in her face with her effort. No fear, or complaining, just gritty bearing down with the single focus of giving birth. Just after the crown of Andrew’s head emerged, the labor stopped. I started worrying something might be wrong. The midwife said soothingly that it was okay to wait patiently, soon enough the rest of him would be coming. It was a wondrous moment in that pause, waiting for his appearance. And before I knew it, he was out and breathing on his own. While Andrew’s birth was a universal human experience, the felt sense of bringing new life into the world and the relief it was complete was wonder. Philomena and I were parents! We were a family.
Wonder is a significant emotional experience that has an element of surprise when one is experiencing the beautiful, the unexpected, the unfamiliar, the inexplicable, the awesomely mysterious. The experience comes with feelings of astonishment, admiration, and gratitude. The mind is held in rapt attention. It leaves behind a sense of inspiration, energy and enthusiasm.
Wonder can stimulate philosophic and scientific research, generate the outpouring of words on the page, especially in poetry, and incline the mind toward great discoveries.
Research on wonder and awe has focused on two prerequisite qualities. The first is a sense of perceptual vastness that the experience exposes. The second is a sense of transcendence, a transcendence of one’s understanding of the world in a way that generates an expansion in comprehension. That expansion can challenge one’s current assumptions about what is known to be true. It reminds us of our finitude, that we are part of something much greater than ourselves, something beyond our comprehension.
Many astronauts floating in space have had this experience gauzing down upon the earth. Edgar Mitchell talked about the feeling as a sense of “interconnected euphoria.” He said, “Something happens to you out there. You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” This experience is so common among astronauts it has a name, the “overview effect.”
Yet, one doesn’t need to travel to the moon to have access to the experience of wonder. A great joy of being at a high elevation far from the light pollution of cities is experiencing the night sky full of stars. The three-dimensional sense of being on a tiny blue orb witnessing light traveling from millions of light years away while pondering the possibility that some of those dots of light are galaxies bigger than our Milky Way with 200 billion stars at about 100,000 light years across. Attempting to wrap our minds around the magnitudes involved makes one feel both quite small but also amazed to be part of something so enormous. What is even more mind boggling is recognizing how old some that light coming at us is. The light from the other side of the universe could be 13 billion years old. It is hard to imagine what is happening there right now because we can only see what was happening long ago. Nor will we ever be able to know what is happening there now since we can’t travel faster than the speed of light. There might be wonderfully advanced civilizations we’ll never know about because we can’t—unless we figure out how to travel many orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light. Warp 10 will not be fast enough!
While the stars may be a powerful access point to wonder, so is the ordinary world around us. Remember wonder is an emotion that has a surprise component. Close and careful observation of the world can bring many surprises that challenge our assumptions and expand the mind.
The sky is a reliable source of wonder for me. Sunrises and sunsets, the colors and cloud formations regularly dazzle my eyes. I’m stopped in my tracks during the fall by trees full of orange and red leaves. The first accumulation of snow on the ground, the stillness of the air as the flakes gently fall, the curious shapes the piles of snow make on different objects, the crunch of the snow underfoot, the pleasure of shoveling light snow that isn’t too deep, all touch my wonder button. Being at the beach in the summer just sitting watching the waves, feeling the hot wind off the sand mixed with the cool of the breeze from the water, pondering the vastness of the sea and all the life I can’t see under the water.
Just as there is so much wonder in nature at the beach, people can inspire wonder too. The little child running up to a wave then running back, the teens blossoming into the prime of their bodies, mothers carrying children on their hips, fathers corralling adventuresome children away from danger, and their elders sheltering from the sun under umbrellas lathered with sunscreen, remembering their youth and also pondering the vastness of the ocean. The experience of the span of human life in one place yet in so many different bodies.
Wonder has no limits. An act of courage or generosity, the graceful movement of a ballerina, the passionate voice uplifted in song, the precise focus of a skilled pianist, the talented magician, the entrancing performance on the stage all can evoke a sense of wonder through the human capacity for transcendence of expectation, the opposite of wonder.
We need not go to the summit of Mount Everest, hang over the edge of the Grand Canyon, snorkel above the Great Barrier Reef, visit the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, or traverse a section of the Great Wall of China. Wonder is possible all around us. Just the very possibility of our existence at all is amazing.
May wonder blur the lines between us and in the process show us the truth that we are not alone.