In a poem entitled, “Is/Not,” Margaret Atwood suggests that when a love grows numb, this is where we find ourselves:
We’re stuck here
on this side of the border
in this country of thumbed streets and stale buildings
where there is nothing spectacular to see
and the weather is ordinary
where love occurs in its pure form only
on the cheaper of the souvenirs
Love can grow numb between two people, just as it can within a whole culture. And that has happened in our culture, at least to a large part. The excitement that once guided our eyes has given way to a certain numbness and resignation. We no longer stand before life with much freshness. We have seen what it has to offer and have succumbed to a certain resignation: That’s all there is, and it’s not that great! All we can try for now is more of the same, with the misguided hope that if we keep increasing the dosage the payoff will be better.
They talk of old souls, but old souls are actually young at heart. We’re the opposite, young souls no longer young at heart. Wonder has left the building.
What’s at the root of this? What has deprived us of wonder? Familiarity and its children: sophistication, intellectual pride, disappointment, boredom and contempt. Familiarity does breed contempt, and contempt is the antithesis of the two things needed to stand before the world in wonder: reverence and respect.
G.K. Chesterton once suggested that familiarity is the greatest of all illusions. Elizabeth Barrett Browning gives poetic expression to this: Earth’s crammed with heaven. And every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries and daub their natural faces unaware. That aptly describes the illusion of familiarity, plucking berries while carelessly stroking our faces, unaware that we are in the presence of the holy. Familiarity renders all things common.
What’s the answer? How do we recover our sense of wonder? How do we begin again to see divine fire inside ordinary life? Chesterton suggests that the secret to recovering wonder and seeing divine fire in the ordinary is to learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again. Biblically, that’s what God asks of Moses when Moses sees a burning bush in the desert and approaches its fire out of curiosity. God says to him, take off your shoes, the ground you are standing on is holy ground.
That single line, that singular invitation, is the deep secret to recover our sense of wonder whenever we find ourselves, as Atwood describes, stuck on this side of the border, in thumbed streets and stale buildings, with nothing spectacular to see, ordinary weather, and love seemingly cheapened everywhere.
One of my professors in graduate school occasionally offered us this little counsel: If you ask a naïve child, do you believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, he will say yes. If you ask a bright child the same question, he will say no. But if you ask yet still a brighter child that question, he will smile and say yes.
Our sense of wonder is predicated initially on the naivete of being a child, of not yet being unhealthily familiar with the world. Our eyes then are still open to marvel at the newness of things. That changes of course as we grow, experience things and learn. Soon enough, we learn the truth about Santa and the Easter Bunny and with that, all too easily, comes the death of wonder and the familiarity that breeds contempt. This is a disillusionment which, while a normal transitional phase in life, is not meant to be a place in which we stay. The task of adulthood is to regain our sense of wonder and begin again, for very different reasons, to believe in the reality of Santa and the Easter Bunny. We need to bring wonder back into the building.
I once heard a wise man share this vignette: Imagine a 2-year-old child who asks you, “Where does the sun go at night?” For a child that young, don’t pull out a globe or a book and try to explain how the solar system works. Just tell the child the sun is tired and is taking a sleep behind the barn. However, when the child is 6 or 7 years old, don’t try that anymore. Then, it’s time to pull out books and explain the solar system. After that, when the child is in high school or college, it’s time to pull out Steven Hawking, Brian Swimme, and astrophysicists, and talk about the origins and make-up of the universe.
Finally, when the person is 80 years old, it’s enough again to say, “the sun is tired and is taking a sleep behind the barn.”
We have grown too familiar with sunsets! Wonder can make the familiar unfamiliar again.
Oblate Fr. Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher, and award-winning author. He can be contacted at www.ronrolheiser.com.