On the experience (or absence) of wonder

When I was a boy of perhaps ten I played “broadcast news” with my friend. We took turns sitting behind the mid-century oak desk in his basement reporting on the day’s events. That summer I had become enthralled with astronomy and had spent endless nighttime hours on my back in our little suburban North Jersey yard, gazing and pondering. I recall taking the broadcast seat and reporting that we continued to live in an infinite universe and we still had absolutely no clue how we got here, or why, or what “here” even meant, that generally speaking we still hadn’t the slightest sense of what the hell was going on. My friend thought this was rather odd but I remember thinking that the nightly news should always begin with such a reminder before moving on to the world’s temporal affairs, that doing so would somehow be extremely useful. To me what seemed so odd was that day-to-day we hardly ever - ever - talked about the astounding mystery that is the sheer fact of existence.

Our day-to-day disregard for this mystery still strikes me as terribly odd, as well as deeply problematic. As a culture we have utterly lost touch with the experience of wonder and the simple facts of existence that naturally induce it. Not coincidentally we are plagued with depression, emptiness, and boredom. What follows is a well-documented story: to combat the discomfort of such states we escape more and more deeply into our technological diversions, which tend to take us further and further from those aspects of life that are truly elevating.

I consider this a spiritual problem because I believe that the spiritual position – as distinct from the religious one – is characterized simply by the experience of wonder in response to the basic fact of being alive. This sense of wonder may be organized in all manner of ways around a seemingly infinite array of stories about the nature of the cosmos and our place in it; or it may not be organized by any particular narrative at all, but instead presents itself as a certain mind-state in the face of unanswerable questions. Why does the universe exist? Why do we? Why should there be something rather than nothing? What the hell is going on here?

In the absence of such wonder, a gnawing boredom commonly pervades, and with it often a terrible ennui or despair. As a clinical psychologist I’ve worked with many people who hold that ennui or despair are the only reasonable responses to what they see as the essential absurdity and meaninglessness of the universe; that is, since (they hold) the universe contains no inherent meaning, and terrible things happen randomly, and it all cosmically amounts to nothing, why shouldn’t one feel a commensurate emptiness?

Yet it is my contention that the basic spiritual position of wonder is available even to those of us who behold an inherent absurdity in the universe. In my experience, and in the teachings of many Eastern and Western traditions, wonder flows very naturally from attention. As the psychologist Fritz Perls has said, “Boredom is simply lack of attention.” The question is, to what are we paying attention?

Typically we pay attention to what is happening in our own personal dramas at eye-level. Over the eons our species developed the amazingly keen ability to survey our landscape, determine sources of threat and pleasure and resources, and plan ways of interacting with the objects and characters in our particular drama. And as we’ve come to master the eye-level world and live lives in which our survival has become more or less guaranteed day-to-day, and we now find ourselves freed in moments to ask if all this living is worthwhile, our hyperfocus on the eye-level world has come to be something of a trap. We find ourselves caught in the absurd, unexamined, and unarticulated assumption that what exists at our eye-level, easily digestible experience of everyday life is all there is to existence.

Certainly the eye-level world is all we ever talk about. In our great cultural turning away from the cosmic answers of the major religions, we have stopped talking about the profoundly moving questions that remain perhaps unanswerable. We’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In so doing we’ve become reductive and positivistic; in becoming reductive and positivistic we’ve become bored and addicted to never ending stimulation.

Wonder is the natural result of breaking out of eye-level obviousness and confronting some piece of the infinitely larger mystery that is the simple truth of the universe. This larger truth need not make any sense, it need only to be encountered. Somehow, for some reason, we all have the capacity to feel awe. Who has stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and not felt this thing that is typically utterly absent in day-to-day life? Such a moment is a crack in the everyday world through which we effortlessly catch a glimpse of a great vastness - a great vastness that is far too often quite literally ignored.

Judging by the innumerable conversations I’ve had with people struggling to feel deeply interested in life, the question of how we might in our everyday lives shift from emptiness to wonder is of no small importance.

We need not be looking through a telescope to ponder and know the utter strangeness of the cosmos, or through an electron microscope to consider the bizarre nature of the unseen all around us. We don’t have to be particle physicists to mull what strange dance of energy makes up the everyday world that pretends to be so solid, or philosophers to be in awe of the fact that any of this exists at all.

But despite our curious capacity to confront such mystery, far too often we ignore it, shut it out of our minds and conversations and our relationship to being alive. Let this be a call to engage the astounding truth that is sheer existence - to consider and talk to each other about the astounding mystery in which we are engulfed - and in so doing live more deeply.