Can you name the last time you felt that way?

Growing Into Wonder

I hate surprises. It doesn’t matter whether they are good or bad, I prefer to know what is coming at me, so I can prepare myself to make the best of it or decide in advance whether fight or flight is the better option. I have known in advance what I was getting for my birthday since I was 12. I know that this would seem to indicate a stolid nature devoid of any sense of adventure, though I think few people would describe me that way. The thing about surprises is that they tend, in our complicated culture, to be the quick and dirty substitute for something far more meaningful and important: wonder.

Children have no sense of wonder. As a culture, we like to pretend that they do, we like to paint portraits of them wide-eyed and awestruck…but the simple truth is that kids are rarely awestruck by anything, because they have not yet formed opinions about the operational parameters of the world they experience. Everything is normal, everything is beyond their comprehension, therefore nothing is particularly amazing (or arguably, everything is, though they don’t typically seem particularly amazed).

As adults, we crave a return to that sense that anything is possible, as over the years we slowly box ourselves in to more and more limited systems of belief, a process which we call “learning from experience”, though in fact real learning has very little to do with it. We experience facets of life, and attempt to generalize from these (usually in an attempt to avoid discomfort in the future). We call the generalizations “understanding”, but in actuality it is a slowly crystallizing structure of beliefs. And eventually our beliefs trap us. We are hemmed in by our own boundaries, and we long for the days when we could breathe freely, delighting in the possibility that literally anything could happen.

Those moments when we glimpse that nearly forgotten realm of possibility inspire what we adults call “wonder”.

After our first taste, wonder is an addictive sensation, though most people never realize what it is they are craving. They substitute the weaker experience of surprise, which while perfectly fine for what it is, will never begin to approach the complete, if momentary, freedom that is wonder. The open night sky, the bizarre implications of quantum physics, those moments when we witness something which perfectly embodies love, truth, or beauty…these things will always carry a deeper sense of satisfaction than the most surprising surprise party in the world.

Is it possible to reach a point where we completely regain our sense of boundlessness? Can we develop a permanent sense of wonder, within which we combine wisdom based on experience with the knowledge that our experience is a doorway rather than a boundary line?

Is that, perhaps, what growing up was always meant to be?