A Sense of Wonder

“A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”
Rachel Carson

Wonder is a beckoning. A come-hither. A lure that pulls us onto a path of knowledge. Wonder is the deliverance from a staid adulthood and a wrapped-up existence.

Wonder is best felt not explained.

Wonder is as simple as watching cows.

Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play. They amble into view from the far side of the barn with their rhythmic, graceful walk, and it is an occasion, like the start of a parade.

[…]

So often they are standing completely still. Yet when I look up again a few minutes later, they are in another place, again standing completely still. Now, in the heart of winter, they spend a lot of time lying around in the snow. Does she lie down because the other two have lain down before her, or are they all three lying down because they all feel it is the right time to lie down?

Short-story writer Lydia Davis fills pages with observations of neighbor cows. Pages propelled by wonder. By a desire to learn, to know. What are they thinking? What motivates them? What do they think of me? She asks indirectly, seeking to cross what divides animals and us.

Wonder is communion. What else can it lead to?

Natural History Museum, London. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
Britain’s Natural History Museum was designed to house the enormous collection of natural specimens overflowing at the British Museum. It was conceived by Sir Richard Owen a creationist, who wanted a “cathedral to nature.” Owen had to lobby Parliament to remove items from the British Museum. In 1881 the British Museum (Natural History) opened. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

“The wonder is,” observed Annie Dillard, a pioneer of nature wondering, “—given the errant nature of freedom and the burgeoning of texture in time—the wonder is that all the forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all[…].”

Why is there beauty at all?

German economist and humanist E.F. Schumacher believes that curiosity is the name for that which expands our world beyond what is essential, beyond our biological constraints. Into a state of being rather than having.

It is, Schumacher continues, what separates us from the unyielding despair of met biological needs and nothing more.

Writer and biologist Rachel Carson develops a lovely case for wonder in our young years, perhaps because child eyes are closer to the earth?

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.

Although she spent her life connecting humans to the environment, Carson’s most beloved project, “The Sense of Wonder,” contains line after line of the simplest, purest wonder as she takes her infant nephew into wild scapes.

One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in a rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy[…].

Photo of Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
The museum’s first director, Sir William Flower, was a supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Flower created the main “Hall of Wonders” that featured dinosaur skeletons designed to surprise and inspire the visitors. In 2017 the dinosaurs were removed and replaced by “Hope” a blue whale who died off the coast of Ireland in 1891. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

I walk around the garden at night with my bundled baby. Oh the things we get up to in the wakeful hours. Does she sense the outdoors? Does she too feel joy?

Schumacher argues that an indescribable factor “x” separates us from animals, minerals, and everything else that is not divine or human. It seems to me, that “x” is ignited by wonder. It is encapsulated by wonder.

More than curiosity, wonder is an entrance to the possible. And impossible.

Gaston Bachelard—the wonderfully imaginative man whose 1958 The Poetics of Space transformed concepts like nests, corners, even roundness into psychological spaces and existential boundaries—writes: “The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration.” Like begonia leaves, snail shells, and ammonites, some transcendent cosmic pattern knights them.

The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration. And since the inhabitant of a shell can amaze us, the imagination will soon make amazing creatures, more amazing than reality, issue from the shell. […] When we accept slight amazement, we prepare ourselves to imagine great amazement and, in the world of the imagination, it becomes normal for an elephant, which is an enormous animal, to come out of a snail shell. It would be exceptional, however, if we were to ask him to go back into it.

Did all of art, all of poetry, all of beauty, all of everything made originate from wonder directed at cosmic patterns and incongruous forms?

Photo of Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
Darwin speculated whales might have evolved from land mammals (he guessed bears) later it was proven they share common ancestors with pigs and hippos. “Hope” is positioned in a feeding dive during which she would shallow mouthfuls of plankton. It is the largest feeding event of any single animal. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

Certainly, science pulses with wonder. I love this passage from geneticist Paul Nurse when he describes how he was lured into biology.

It may have been a butterfly that first started me thinking seriously about biology. It was early spring; I was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old and sitting in the garden when a quivering yellow butterfly flew over the fence. It turned, hovered and briefly settled—just long enough for me to notice the elaborate veins and spots on its wings. […] Like me, it was so obviously alive: it could move, it could sense, it could respond, it seemed so full of purpose. I found myself wondering: what does it really mean to be alive?

Our minds can contemplate the universe if we let it.

If you are a bit foggy on wonder, start with Annie Dillard, the naturalist, novelist, and all-around brilliant observer, who inhales the universe:

I wonder how long it would take you to notice the regular recurrence of the seasons if you were the first man on earth. What would it be like to live in open-ended time broken only by days and nights? You could say, ‘it’s cold again; it was cold before,’ but you couldn’t make the key connection and say, ‘it was cold this time last year,’ because the notion of ‘year’ is precisely the one you lack. Assuming that you hadn’t yet noticed any orderly progression of heavenly bodies, how long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end?

It is a sticky thing, wonder. A viscous thing. It is flying your way all the time like cosmic spitballs.

Should it hit you, stick to you, it might not leave. It might keep pulling you in. To cows. To stars. To cells. To anything above biological needs.

Davis continues to watch cows:

The third comes out into the field, from behind the barn when the other two have already chosen their spots, quite far apart. She can choose to join either one. She goes deliberately to that one in the far corner. Does she prefer the company of that cow or does she prefer that corner?

Photo of Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
The Hall’s cathedral structure allows visitors to walk around the diving whale, wondering at her size, the way her bones support one another, what it takes to create and sustain such a giant. Learn more about this wonderful place or take an audio-tour with David Attenborough. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

Wonder is the sticky thing that pulls us onto the threshold of comprehension and pushes us over the edge into what Carson calls a “renewed excitement in living.”

Find something to wonder about. Better yet, find something to keep wondering about.

The Word is Not Enough

“Thank you is not enough. But there are no words.”
Christie Watson

We seem to be existing in a space beyond words. Beyond language. The fear, the anxiety, the gratitude, the anger…

The word is not enough.

What happens when words fail us? What takes their place? How does this affect communication, moreover communion?

In many ways, language has always been a boundary against which we push—a “boundary of the unsayable,” American novelist Marilynne Robinson calls it.

Against it pushes Joan Didion when she tries to express grief at the death of her daughter. Against it pushes physicist Alan Lightman when he stretches himself in the universe seeking place and meaning.

Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
Hieroglyphics at the Luxor Temple, Egypt. Hieroglyphs, from the Greek “sacred carvings,” utilized pictorial form to narrate and define. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And whoever thinks these are worthy, breathy words I am writing down is kind. Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion. […] Sunflowers themselves are far more wonderful than any words about them.

I wish I could transport Mary Oliver to the space next to Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh painted sunflowers, his favorite flower, again and again. A man who spoke so many languages, had so many words on his lips, felt he needed to paint to express.

We act when we cannot say.

Hieroglyphics at Karnak, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
Hieroglyphics at Karnak, Egypt. “But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place – not very often and always inexplainable.” wrote John Steinbeck. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Windows in London are full of rainbows. This country has agreed rainbows express what we cannot say to all the frontline workers who are saving our lives. A big arc of color, a small thank-you.

We make rainbows. We act. But how do the health care workers self-express? Do they make rainbows for each other?

English nurse Christie Watson admits in her memoir that the language of kindness is something practiced, day after day. It is something shown, not spoken. For how do you thank someone for returning your life? Returning the life of someone you love?

Watson shares a note she once received:

To the bereavement midwife. You helped me through the worst time of our life. We will treasure the memories you let us make during Annabelle’s short time. Thank you is not enough. But there are no words.

But we cannot always act. What if we have negative feelings, emotions? What if we hate and fear to the fringes of our body such that we pulse? Then should we act?

Anger is an outsized emotion, “the deepest form of compassion,” concludes poet David Whyte. “The internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect.”

When the word is not enough, violence becomes the act of expression. “Words!” they might as well be yelling, “we need more words!”

Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Steinbeck continues “There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Will the words we use ever catch up to our need for expression?

“The human experience,” argues Erich Fromm, “is not describable.” In his 1976 work To Have or To Be?, the German social psychologist separates the human experience into “having” and “being.” In the having mode, everything is a thing, describable. But in the (more preferred) being mode, the word is not enough.

One could write pages of description of the Mona Lisa’s smile, and still the pictured smile would not have been caught in words—but not because her smile is so ‘mysterious.’ Everybody’s smile is mysterious (unless it is the learned synthetic smile of the marketplace). No one can fully describe the expression of interest, enthusiasm, biophilia, or of hate or narcissism that one might see in the eyes of another person, or the variety of facial expressions, of gaits, of postures, of intentions that exists among people.

The shortage of language, argues Fromm, stands between one person and another, stands between our communion.

None of these experiences can be fully expressed in words. The words are vessels that are filled with experience that overflows the vessels. The words point to an experience, they are not the experience. […] Hence being is indescribable in words and is communicable only be sharing my experience.

Human separateness, our desire to commune and connect with one another—is there anything more profound or urgent? The shallowness of words as vessels can never be overcome, argues Fromm.

But there is a means to understanding one another, what Fromm calls “mutually alive relatedness.”

“It is through this mutually alive relatedness,” promises Fromm “that we overcome the barrier for separateness.”

“Mutually alive relatedness.” I cheer at this term. I cheer the concept of this term.

Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
“The craft of art or writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for wordlessness.” The power of these carvings, what they express and how they still express today, prove Steinbeck’s point. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
It is a bit maudlin (even sinister), but it strikes me that humans in this pandemic have something that connects us in “mutually alive relatedness.” Not since the last world war have we ever experienced something so universal, so everywhere.

I might not read your anger or your sadness or joy—but I read your pandemic fatigue fluently. In the lines by your eyes. In the slope of your shoulders, the way you kick your feet forward when you walk like your skin holds you up.

Will this mutual experience upset our language and by doing so reinforce our human connection and communion?

American novelist Marilynne Robinson delights in the abundance of words and how they push the “boundaries of unsayable.”

France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. The old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allowed us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain.

[…]

How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them. Somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed.

Robinson believes that language evokes a reality beyond experience and beyond imagination—that our scientific forays into quantum mechanics, dark matter, and dark energy demonstrate “the extraordinary power of language to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said.”

Whether our reality outstrips our words or vice versa is irrelevant. They are in close pursuit.

Let’s not abandon language. It has been with us since the beginning.

But it is time we challenge language. New words. New things. New utterances. New hybrids. More understood, less misconstrued.

I am tired, sore, contracted, and retreating. Yet, I feel safe. And any minute, I’ll switch to being eager, enthusiastic, and energetic. But that happiness will be bound by fear and insecurity and, underneath it all, murky anger.

I do not have a word for this feeling. Yet.

Normalizing the Absurd

“What does life mean in such a universe?”
Albert Camus

Something absurd is going on.

If you are feeling spent (of course you are), it is because you are being pummelled by the absurd. The absurd, French philosopher Albert Camus instructs us, is what is flung back when we throw plans at an indifferent universe.

COVID is absurd. Brexit is absurd. Polarized America is absurd. The destruction of our environment is absurd. Anything that disrupts our notion of what is is absurd.

We change our notion of what is to minimize – normalize – the absurd. And then we make more plans.1

Photo of Monty Python Team, 1969, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org.
Two decades after Camus argued that any situation could be scorned to the point of derisive humor, a group of comedians proved him right. Absurdity is the essence of Monty Python comedy. The six Pythons in 1969. Left to right: Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In Franz Kafka’s most famous novel, Metamorphosis, the hero, Gregor, wakes up as a beetle. Rather than dispensing with the why or how, Kafka simply moves on with the plot.

Similarly, one of my favorite proses/poems, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, is the tale of a crow that moves in with a family after the mother dies. Says the crow: “He didn’t see me against the blackness of his trauma.”

In grief, the senses fold, don’t they? Even a giant crow in the entryway could seem normal.

Our mental, physical, and even spiritual health demands we normalize the absurd. Demands that we keep living.

In one of her first writings, essayist and social critic Joan Didion observes the absurdity when society shifts so fundamentally on one aspect of life.

In this case, marriage à la Las Vegas.

To be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada, a bride must swear that she is eighteen or has parental permission and a bridegroom that he is twenty-one or has parental permission. Someone must put up five dollars for the license. (Sundays and holidays, fifteen dollars.) […] Nothing else is required.

This was in 1967. Didion highlights the absurdity that the rest of one’s life is decided on impulse. And yet, the reason it works is that Vegas markets the feeling of eternity.

Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification […] Almost everyone notes there is no “time” in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future; neither is there any logical sense of where one is.

Vegas upset notions of marriage by promising eternity, helping us avoid our death anxiety. Marriage is a physical thing; it needs to be shaken up.

But what about a more destructive absurd? Do we normalize that too?

John Cleese filming "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", photo featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org. Photo credit: Daily Record/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Python John Cleese recalls the direction of Python was set by Terry Gilliam’s absurd animations, what Cleese refers to as a “stream of consciousness approach.” John Cleese filming “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in Scotland, 8th May 1974. Photo by Daily Record/Mirrorpix/ via Getty Images

Consider the horrifyingly true story of Elie Wiesel’s imprisonment in Auschwitz. When Wiesel witnesses his father being brutalized, Wiesel does not act. “Only yesterday, I would have dug my nails into this criminal’s flesh. Had I changed that much? So fast?”

Later, when his father dies, Wiesel feels even less:

I woke up at dawn on January 29. On my father’s cot there lay another sick person. They must have taken him away before daybreak and taken him to the crematorium. Perhaps he was still breathing…

No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.

I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside of me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!

The abject dehumanization of the Auschwitz experience acted as an instant normalizer against additional stress. Wiesel normalized his father’s (absurd) suffering to keep himself alive.

Wiesel’s experience lends insight into how an entire society might normalize the virulent absurd.

During the First World War, a modern poet of tremendous urgency, Wilfred Owen, wrote verse of tremendous human consciousness: collective conscious—do we as a society know what it means to wage war? And individual conscious—do we know what it means to march towards death?

Owen’s poem “Conscious” is ostensibly about a soldier dying, but really it is about society’s consciousness to the fact that war is absurd.

But sudden evening blurs and fogs the air.
There seems no time to want a drink of water.
Nurse looks so far away. And here and there
Music and roses burst through crimson slaughter.
He can’t remember where he saw blue sky…
The trench is narrower. Cold, he’s cold; yet hot –
And there’s no light to see the voices by…
There is no time to ask… he knows not what.

from “Conscious”

“A man who has become conscious of the absurd is for ever bound to it” warned (promised?) Camus.

Michael Palin in Four Yorkshireman sketch, 2014, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org
“I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘Hallelujah.'” Michael Palin in the “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch that satirizes our romance with memory. Photo by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana. © CC BY 2.0

I am not as shocked of photos of overflowing, helpless COVID wards as I was in March.

Are you?

It is not because I’ve become desensitized. It is not because COVID is weaker. It is because I kept making plans. Kept order. Kept my kids alive. Did not let death claim us.

Ah, death. Our unknowable real mortality.

“Perhaps the best proof of the Almighty’s existence,” reasons poet Joseph Brodsky, “is that we never know when we are to die.”

Camus would agree the greatest absurdity of all is that we strive for control and meaning when we cannot control when our own existence ends (or begins).

Monty_Python_Live_02, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org
A body-less foot, a Ministry of Silly Walks, unexpected visits by the Spanish Inquisition (an absurd entity if there ever was one) and African migratory swallows are a few of the completely absurd punchlines in the Python sketch comedy. Above, a reprisal of “The Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch, 2014. Photo by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana. © CC BY 2.0

Camus argues that it is our death anxiety that makes us find meaning and control and normalize the absurd in the first place. That quest turns into a mechanization of life.

Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time.

But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement […] Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery. In itself weariness has something sickening about it. Here, I must conclude that it is good. For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.

Camus tells us the mechanization of life must be fought. Normalization must be fought. (He suggested with humor). Or to say it differently: Never stop being affected. Even if that means we allow pain and death into our hearts. It also allows in power. Humor. And love.

But once you are conscious of the absurd you are conscious of the absurd. Are you willing to take that chance?

Something absurd is going on.