Lesson 18 — Rediscovering Wonder
How often do you find yourself lost in wonder? Frequently? Rarely? Or does the whole idea of wonder seem silly and childish to you?
There is something child-like about wonder, and wonder seems to arise quite frequently and naturally in childhood. Of my own moments of wonder, the first that I clearly remember occurred during the summer of 1941. I was five years old then, and my father had just given me a crystal set radio and a pair of Cannonball headphones — earphones we called them back then.
There wasn’t much to the crystal set. The base was a piece of 1/8-inch thick hardboard about seven inches square. At the back of the board was a coil of fine wire about the size of a toilet paper tube. Just in front of the coil was the crystal — a small piece of shiny galena lead ore embedded in a cylinder of soft metal. Right next to the crystal was a curious assembly known as a cat’s whisker. It allowed a stiff, springy wire to be brought into contact with any desired point on the crystal’s surface.
My father was excited, I could see that, and his excitement was infectious. I sensed that this was neat stuff, and was eager to try the little radio. Not yet, my father explained. Although the crystal set didn’t need electricity to make it work, it did need a high-up wire antenna and a ground connection.
My father discovered that someone, years before, had installed an antenna in the attic. He connected a new lead-in wire to the old antenna, dropped it out the attic window, and brought it through another window into my bedroom. He then attached that wire and a wire from a radiator to spring clips on the crystal set. He put the earphones on and slowly and carefully moved the cat’s whisker around on the crystal. When he finally found the sought-for “hot” spot, his face turned into one big smile. Continuing to grin, he took the earphones off his head, adjusted the headband so they’d fit me, and slipped them on my ears.
I couldn’t believe it. Music! In my head! From somewhere! All this magic from a board, a coil, and a crystal. How could it be? It was wonderful. Dad told me that the antenna picked up radio signals from the air, and something that amazing seemed to be happening — but how? This was something special, something out-of-the-ordinary, something miraculous.
This sort of radio-inspired wonder continued to surface from time to time as I grew up. I can remember sitting at a card table with my father a year and a half later as he put together a two-tube earphone radio for me. Then, when I was nine, while poring over a library book on radio, I came to a chapter that described this very same radio — MY radio. I read that if I only had a set of 4-prong short-wave plug-in coils for it I could listen to stations from other countries. WOW!
Dad to the rescue again. We went down to New York’s Cortlandt Street — roughly where the World Trade Center is now — and bought a set of plug-in coils. That night I listened to the BBC and Radio Moscow . . . wonder, wonder, and more WONDER! Later, in my teens, I became a ham radio operator. Time and time again the wonder arose anew as I conversed with people half a world away by means of magical signals from equipment sitting in front of me that I had built myself.
My childhood interest in radio eventually led me to enter engineering school, and through my studies much about the world around me became demystified; a lot of the magic was rendered rational. Despite this, the wonder didn’t disappear. Even today when I sit at my ham radio set and talk to someone in Europe, or the Caribbean, or the South Pacific, or exchange on-the-air pictures or keyboard data with them, that feeling of wonder arises again.
Rather than destroying wonder for me, my knowledge of science redirected it. Again and again, technology had prompted experiences of wonder, but over the years the wonder became not so much a response to a technology as to the underlying natural order which allowed that technology to function. Science explains the details of our world; it makes the specifics rational. Science tells me, for instance, that under certain circumstances, with the right equipment, I should be able to talk to people around the world. The laws of nature allow it to happen — no, they insist on it happening. When science makes the manifest details rational in this way, the wonder moves down a level, to the existence of a universe that allows such happenings. Everything becomes wondrous, sacred. Whence came these marvelous laws of nature that permit rational magic? I don’t know, but I am wonderstruck by the fact that existence is the way it is. Nature itself is the GREAT WONDER, and the source of all the specific wonders.
Many people who might not see wonder in scientific law find it in direct encounters with the natural world. Thoreau lets us feel this:
We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the blooming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.13
As I come over the hill, I hear the wood thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.14
And in his way, Whitman, too, takes us there:
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles, . . .15
What can we do to experience wonder more frequently? Recapturing a childlike orientation to experience is one thing, and we could probably all benefit from hanging out with pre-schoolers, 9-year-olds, and turned-on teens. There are other approaches, too. The most popular one in our culture is to intentionally put ourselves in some intense, awesome, or mind-boggling situation. Who could view Arizona’s Grand Canyon without experiencing wonder? Or watch the birth of a baby? Or, as I described back in Lesson 12, assist at an autopsy?
There is a third way of bringing wonder into our lives: quiet our minds. The busyness of the world around us and the busyness of our individual lives distance us from wonder. Powerful new experiences — like visiting the Grand Canyon or seeing a baby born — override this ordinary-life noise level, and may wake us up to wonder. But there is wonder all around us, all the time, and quieting the mind allows us to see the wonder in a flower, an insect, a person’s touch. So while powerful experiences trigger episodes of wonder, a quiet mind lets us live with wonder more continuously. A new kind of pleasure becomes available to us.
There are various ways of quieting the mind. Spending a week or two alone somewhere without books or electronic media is one way. Attending a seven or ten day silent meditation retreat is another. Unfortunately, when someone first goes from the buzzing world into solitude and quiet circumstances they often perceive it as a negative change. Most of us are accustomed to high-level stimulation, and when that stimulation stops, our initial reaction is one of deprivation. We want it to start up again. Because we have become desensitized by the bash and buzz and wail of modern life, when we do enter the quiet, things for a time seem distant, indistinct, and out of reach. If we are willing to put up with this uneasy state for two or three days, it passes. Isolated from noise, from artificially set up pleasure hits and other high-level inputs, our senses slowly, gradually, regain their natural sensitivity. After a week or two of solitude and quiet, the simple life becomes positively full — filled by the countless stimuli of the everyday world. We then begin to see the wondrous world which our battered, bruised, overstimulated senses have been neglecting. The world of Thoreau and Whitman is still there for any of us who want badly enough to enter it.
13. From Henry David Thoreau’s WALDEN, Chapter XVII
14. From Henry David Thoreau’s JOURNAL, June 22, 1853
15. Lines from Walt Whitman’s poem “MIRACLES.”
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
What do you know of WONDER!? Describe your experience(s) of encountering this exquisite and transcendent feeling: wonder, awe, marvel, astonishment. Examine instances.
What quiet-mind wonders have you known?
What experience have you had with extended silence in solitude? What was it like? What came of it?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.