Reviving a Sense of Wonder

The first of Andrea Ebley’s monthly posts on the blog.  

IMG_3877wonder n : rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience

Children embody the definition of wonder, a sense that inspires curiosity and investigation, and fosters delight. How often do you see a child running to catch falling leaves or jumping from curb to puddle, completely absorbed in his actions and oblivious to all else? How often do you see a full-grown adult doing those same things? You may chuckle at the thought, but why? Why are children expected to act in living curiosity while adults refrain from any such silly antics? Do we, as adults, act with such disinterest because social norms pressure us to, or have we simply grown tired of the world around us? In her book The Sense of WonderRachel Carson, a noted environmental author, writes;

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”

We are all born with that sense of wonder, that rapt attention at the new and mysterious world we are just learning to explore, but as time goes by and the world seems to repeat itself in seasons and sunrises and sunsets, it is easy to let ourselves become desensitized. Every now and then I catch a faint resurgence of childlike delight when I shuffle and crunch through fallen leaves on the edge of the sidewalk, or drive through big puddles, and I know that we are capable of regaining that sense of wonder.

In fact, it is not only possible but critical that we each nurture and strengthen our shriveled and atrophied sense of wonder. In my own experience, the reasons for this are manifold:

  • A strong sense of wonder helps to garner a healthy perspective of the world around us and our role in it. We are meant to be stewards, responsible for our actions that affect the environment we live in and are linked to, and recapturing wonder helps to make those connections more obvious.
  • Cultivating wonder in nature helps to find joy in the seemingly mundane, making everyday life more enjoyable, and offering  a renewed excitement in living.
  • The initial emotion of wonder opens the doorway to further learning and an increase of knowledge, which often turns into a sort of positive feedback loop, creating more wonder and a greater desire for learning. Lastly, it is vital that we understand the importance of the sense of wonder so that we can in turn encourage and nurture it in the generations after us.

Now that you have glimpsed its importance, you may be wondering how you can revive your own sense of wonder.  Below I have attached several excerpts from books that helped me to better understand what a sense of wonder is, and what it means to have it. I encourage you to read them over at least once and reflect on them.

Secondly, I urge you to go outside! Go somewhere away from the distractions of your life and other people, and take a silent walk or just sit. Open your eyes and ears to things both large and small, and explore, poke around, and investigate all you want! Rachel Carson makes several good suggestions for how to make the most of walking in nature in The Sense of Wonder:

• “Exploring nature…is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.” “One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’”

• “…look at objects you take for granted as commonplace or uninteresting…the beauties we usually miss because we look too hastily, seeing the whole and not its parts.”

• “Senses other than sight can prove avenues of delight and discovery, storing up for us memories and impressions.”  Make an effort to cultivate your senses of smell, hearing, and touch.

• Don’t worry about identifying things you see, at least not at first. A sense of wonder is not as much about knowing as it is about feeling.

Finally, since you most likely can’t escape to a remote place to explore every day, continue to nurture your sense of wonder in your daily life with your everyday natural surroundings. Keep your eyes open, and take time to pause, investigate, wonder, and reflect. Take your eyes off the computer screen for a few minutes to watch the sun set, or stop on your way to the car to watch a squirrel chatter up a tree. Pluck a blade of grass from the lawn and examine its form, texture, color, and smell. Wake up before the sun to hear the first birds chirping. If you simply allow yourself to stop for a moment and soak in the natural world around you, you may begin to wonder at the intricacies and interconnections of it all, and that is the first step. From there, I urge you to continue to cultivate your wonder and see the world from a fresh perspective. After all, why should kids have all the fun?

Supplemental Readings:

1. G.K. Chesterton‘s Orthodoxy, Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”
All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

2. Rainer Maria Rilke‘s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, “How Surely Gravity’s Law”
How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing –
each stone, blossom, child –
is held in place.
only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

3. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. V, Chapter 5, “Early Spring in Massachusetts”
I must receive my life as passively as the willow leaf that flutters over the brook. I must not be for myself, but God’s work, and that is always good. I will wait the breezes patiently, and grow as they shall determine. My fate cannot but be grand so. We may life the life of a plant or an animal without living an animal life. This constant and universal content of the animal comes of resting quietly in God’s palm. I feel as if I could at any time resign my life and the responsibility into God’s hands, and become as innocent and free from care as a plant or stone.

4. Sigurd F. Olson‘s Sports Afield, “Moon Magic”
Once when camped on a rocky point along the Canadian border with the moon at full and my tent pitched in the light of it, I was lying in my sleeping-bag, tent flaps open, studying the effect of pine needles etched against the sky. Suddenly I was aware of a slight rustle as though some small animal was trying to climb the silken roof of the tent. Then I saw that it was a mouse scrambling desperately up the edge of the side wall. Another wild scramble and it was on the ridge rope itself, tottering uncertainly back and forth. Then, to my amazement, the mouse launched itself out into space and slid down the smooth and shining surface of the tent to the ground below.

The action was repeated many times until the little animal became expert and reckless and lost no time between the climb back and the sheer abandon of its slide. Faster and faster it ran, intoxicated now by its new and thrilling experience; up along the edge straight toward the center of the ridge rope, a swift leap, belly down, legs spread wide to get the full effect of the exhilarating toboggan it had found, a slide of balloon silk straight to the needle-strewn ground below.

I watched the game for a long time. Eventually I stopped trying to count the slides and wondered at last how the mouse could possibly keep up its pace. As I lay there, I became convinced that it was enjoying itself hugely, that I was witnessing an activity which had no purpose but pleasure. I had seen many animals play in the moonlight —- had watched a family of otters enjoying a slide into a deep pool, beaver playing a game of tag in a pond, squirrels chasing one another wildly through the silver-splashed tops of the pines. Under the magic spell of the moon, the mouse had acted no differently than the rest.

I thought as I lay there in my bag that, if nothing else, moonlight made animals and men forget for a little while the seriousness of living; that there were moments when life could be good and play the natural outlet for energy. I knew that if a man could abandon himself as my dear mouse had done and slide down the face of the earth in the moonlight once a month —- or once a year, perhaps —- it would be good for his soul.