In defence of wonder

We live in nihilistic days. We live in quotidian days.

Or, in more familiar English: we live in days that are both humdrum and meaningless. The days blur into each other. We go to our workplace; we do the tasks that our employer has assigned to us; we return to our homes to relax and recharge. We do the same thing again, except on the seventh and first days of the week, the ‘weekend’ when our days are our own. They probably look surprisingly similar to each other too.

This rhythm often becomes meaningless. We struggle to figure out the purpose of our ordinary existences. We begin to doubt if there is any meaning to be found in the conveyor belt at all. Then we frantically ignore these thoughts, for that way lie dire consequences, like becoming a philosopher.

Have you ever noticed that? It’s not a new thing, or least the first part isn’t. Human life has always been mundane. Plant your crops, act according to the seasons, hope and pray against precarity. The inability to find meaning in the rolling ordinariness of life is newer though, it’s a feature of ‘modernity’ that is growing stronger.

There are structural reasons for this involving wealth and capitalism. There are philosophical reasons and technological reasons. At the ordinary human level though, I’m convinced that it’s a failure of our stories. They are growing thin and weak and we are tired of telling them.

There’s a solution to this though: tell better stories.

Ok, that wasn’t a great revelation. There’s a prior solution, we need to soften our hearts (our ‘imaginaries’ to co-opt and reframe some of Charles Taylor’s language) to be ready to listen and live stories. At the moment they sound ridiculous. We scoff at faery tales. We need to wake up and realise that the problem isn’t with the stories, but with us. We’ve lost the capacity to taste them and tell them.

How do we get that back? I would suggest: embrace wonder as an act of defiance.

This is the simplest suggestion I can give. Live for wonder. I was watching a small bird—it might have been a blue tit, but I know very little about them—dance about in front of my patio doors earlier today. They seemed to be hunting for material to make a nest. That’s astounding. It’s very ordinary, but there’s a dignity to the quest, the care with which pieces picked up from the dry earth were rejected, and a humour in the bird’s dance. A female blackbird was wondering around a few feet behind the blue tit, a magpie further up the garden. It was delightful.

Stop, slow down, and watch. The world around you is astonishing. At the end of my garden is a flowering cherry, whose blossom is white against the fading light of the clear sky. It’s beautiful. The blossom will be gone in a week or so. The tree briefly shows its joy in a spark of colour. It’s happy to be alive.

I’m blessed with a large and attractive garden, but manmade things can inspire wonder too. Have you ever stopped and looked at a well-built house as you walk down the street? There’s something beautiful about sharply pointed bricks and the contrast between the gentle variations of colour in good bricks and the bright uniformity of mortar. There is such a thing as an ugly house, and ugly bricks, certainly, but plenty are attractive to look at. They point to the skill of the craftsmen who made them.

All of these examples are nothing compared to the gentle grandeur of rolling hills in the south east of England, the stately dignity of electricity pylons, the sharp undulations of the Peak District, the bustling temerity of city centres, or the majesty of the sea.

All of those are nothing too, because they all point beyond themselves to the God who fashioned them and made them with his hands (Isaiah 40). The glories of the world, natural and manmade, point beyond themselves to the creator.

So, foster wonder as an act of defiance. The world is breath-taking, as is your neighbourhood. Wonder prepares our heart for stories; wonder makes us realise that nihilism is nonsense even if we aren’t sure what the meaning is yet. Wonder demonstrates that there must be meaning even if it doesn’t tell us the story.

Christians should be a people of wonder; we know the Story, after all! But our wonder should spill over, imagination should be the kind of people we are. In that, at least, we will be like our endlessly childlike God.

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Photo by Duncan Sparks on Unsplash