Thursday, July 30, 2009

Retrieving the Sense of Wonder

Our esteemed blogg-mistress asks about retrieving one's sense of wonder - thereby awakening a number of interesting responses from our readers. (Including me.) The question seems to call for suggestions - what is it we should do - or avoid doing - in order to begin to discover (re-discover) our world?

It's easy enough to point out that this disease - let us call it "wonder deficiency" - seems to arise more and more in our modern life. This is odd, because there are actually many more things to wonder at now than there used to be - even the most common and ordinary things have been exalted beyond what even great intellects and philosophers - even ALL great intellects and philosophers - have been able to glimpse.

Let us first have a brief review. What do we mean by "wonder"? You can use your own dictionary, if you like, but GKC points out:
To admire is to wonder, and to wonder is to wonder at something strange.
[GKC ILN Dec 6 1930 CW35:425]
So, it means admiring - you will perhaps argue that this is using the same word in Latin (admiror = I admire, am astonished at; from miror = I wonder). But it helps. If we begin to admire, we also begin to wonder - and to be astonished at.

So - awe, wonder, astonishment - how do we do it?

The first and simplest rule is this:

Decide that you will never, under any circumstances, be BORED.

Now, that sounds so simple - and so impossible. But it's not. How are we bored? For most of us, it is when we are forced to wait - at a turnpike tollbooth, at the supermarket checkout, at a medical appointment, or whatever. Or possibly in the curious instance of "having nothing to do" - which for me is very hard to imagine, but perhaps you will understand the idea.

Now, let us see what GKC tells us about this. Here is just one example:
For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys' habit in this matter.
[GKC ILN July 21 1906 CW27:239]
Oh, trains! Do you have trains near you? Well, even if not, you surely have automobiles, and they ought to be intensely astonishing.

What - those dull, hateful monsters that roar past? Or you mean mine, that needs new tires and comes up for inspection soon, and that I pay through the nose to insure, and that just got scratched by some ne'er-do-well?

Er... yes. I mean cars. Your car, your neighbor's car (so much nicer, of course) - or those that shoot past you and take your parking space or cut you off.

What can GKC conceivably say that is GOOD about cars? Oh, you of little faith - you are about to have your socks knocked off!
The wrong is not that engines are too much admired, but that they are not admired enough. The sin is not that engines are mechanical, but that men are mechanical.
[GKC Heretics CW1:113]
There are two items here, in this automobile, which should give you two different means of stimulating wonder and admiration. The first is due to the engine (the machine) itself; the second to its owner.

Consider the car, and its engine. Do you have any clue what is under the hood? I mean in general, under any car's hood, or in specific, under your car's hood. Do you know how it works, and why? Do you have any clue why there must be an alternator, and how it "pumps up the voltage" from the battery so that the sparkplugs will work? Do you know? Or what 2,2,4-trimethylpentane is, and where it comes from? Oh, my there are so many questions to consider. I could make many other recommendations - from the traditional "first experiment" of chemistry, which is to observe a candle - to flipping through Gray's Anatomy or the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, but you will say I am over-emphasizing science, No - if anything, I have not emphasized it enough. If you want to wonder, you need to be overwhelmed with what you do not know - while preserving a real clue to its knowability - and so I direct you to Chesterton:
The child is, indeed, in these, and many other matters, the best guide. And in nothing is the child so righteously childlike, in nothing does he exhibit more accurately the sounder order of simplicity, than in the fact that he sees everything with a simple pleasure, even the complex things. The false type of naturalness harps always on the distinction between the natural and the artificial. The higher kind of naturalness ignores that distinction. To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other, are equally of the gold of fairy-tales. In the middle of the wildest fields the most rustic child is, ten to one, playing at steam-engines. And the only spiritual or philosophical objection to steam-engines is not that men pay for them or work at them, or make them very ugly, or even that men are killed by them; but merely that men do not play at them. The evil is that the childish poetry of clockwork does not remain.
[GKC Heretics CW1:112-3]
And now, let us proceed to the even more wonderful.

Next, let us consider the driver, or owner, of that car. Let us say you do not know him, for it is lots more fun when he is a stranger, and far more astonishing. Do you stop to think he is your relative? That, if you were to write down all the things you share with him, either in the physical or the biological or the social sense, you would fill dozens of libraries with the details? Do you know that he has parents as you do, may have brothers or sisters or children, that he has neighbors, and struggles with work, and perhaps delights in the same music or the same games as you - or maybe - wonder of wonders - he might like something different that YOU HAVE NEVER EVEN EXPERIENCED? You may be just a short conversation away from being dazzled by something new. No, I am not suggesting you poll passing motorists for musical tastes, as we ought to be polite. But this is about wonder. The simple secrets of the passing stranger - who he is and what he is, his delights and aspirations - are the raw materials for whole libraries of fiction. But then remember:
truth is stranger than fiction. Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.
[GKC Heretics CW1:66]
So perhaps I ought to say whole libraries of anthropology, the science of Man.

The science of Man - are you amazed or appalled? You ought to be awed beyond words, for is this not spoken of in the Psalms, where God is asked:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? [Ps 8:5]
Indeed! Again here we have several broad avenues to explore - the whole vast Chestertonian literature of his mystical anthropology, about which we would need a whole department of our University to explore adequately. But though I am quite on the large side of human beings, I am not quite up to being a whole department, and so I shall leave you with the very simple and profound image of the door-knocker, by which you may begin to reawaken your sense of wonder...
a door-knocker is so full of significance that any person of quite average intelligence might write volumes of poems about it. It is - to name but a few of the things beyond question - the symbol of courtesy, the guardian of the home, the declaration of the proposed meeting between man and man, the salute to the rights of the individual, the sign of the bringing of news, the herald of happiness, the herald of calamity, the iron hammer of love and death. That we have a knocker on our doors means almost everything that is meant by the whole of our ritual and literature. It means that we are not boors and barbarians; that we do not call on a man by climbing into the window or dropping down the chimney. It means all that was ever meant by the old fairy stories, in which a horn was hung up outside the castle of the giant or the magician, so that the daring visitor might have to blow it, and utter in echoing sound the thing that he dared. ... It is still there, however neglected and debased in form, to express a dim sentiment that it is a serious thing to go into the house of a man. It is there to say that the meeting between one of God's images and another is a grave and dreadful matter, to be begun with thunder.
[GKC Lunacy and Letters 66-7]
As you practice you will soon be able to say something like this:
I am a Chestertonian, and so I am never bored. I admire machines, as I admire the trees and the stars, and I admire my fellow man as an image of God, who happens to be at the same time an image of me. He is a friend I hope to get to know better.
You might prefer GKC's own version, which he wrote to his fiancee:
I like the Cyclostyle ink; it is so inky. I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud. It is just the same with people.... When we call a man "manly" or a woman "womanly" we touch the deepest philosophy.
[GKC to FB July 8 1899 quoted in Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton 108-9]
In conclusion, you need to begin to live in the real world. You need to "take fierce pleasure in things being themselves". It is not hard - children do it, and adults can do it far better. (Yes, that's stunning, but it's true.) You, like GKC, will touch the deepest philosophy, and you will recover the sense of wonder.


  1. Thank you, Dr. Thursday, for this brilliant and timely post.

    I've always had a rule in our house. No one can say "I'm bored." Perhaps it is because inside, I understand this concept better than I can articulate it.

    My hope is that at some point, my children stop and wonder (tee hee) why I made such a rule, and ponder its implications for life.

    I also like your mention that the world suffers from "wonder deficiency", and I've had the same thought about that as we grow older, we only find more and more to wonder at, not less.

  2. Being a mechanical engineer, I can assure you that I am fully appreciative of cars, but this time, the question of wonder took me another direction. Industrial designer William McDonough, in a lecture on sustainability, had this to say about trees:

    "Imagine this design problem: Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, provides habitats for hundreds of species, changes colors with the seasons and self-replicates. Well, why don't we knock that down, smash it flat, and write on it?"

    Personally, I just like to look at them. And climb them, of course.

  3. I love the idea of a "a fierce pleasure in things being themselves." I think, though, that sometimes a thing or a person can only be itself by going against type--and we can have a sense of wonder at a "womanly" man or a "manly" woman (or any person who doesn't fit expected roles, and who manages to be true to him- or herself despite all pressures to conform). This may not be "orthodox" Chestertonianism, but I wanted to say that Chesterton can inspire wonder even in those who don't subscribe to all aspects of this orthodoxy. After all, Chesterton is the man who wrote that "each small thing in the world ha[s] to fight against the world that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist." (The Man Who Was Thursday, Chapter XV)I think this suggests that "things being themselves" doesn't always mean things being what they are "supposed" to be.

  4. Does Chesterton have anything to say about gratitude?


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