What is the value of wonder?
This is something I have been reflecting on lately, and the idea was brought into sharper focus when I was running along my usual route. The path beside the water was dappled with winter – there were icy patches in the pavement cracks and streaks of frost on the grass. But the landscape was not yet consumed by winter’s silence: it was still alive and visible beneath this surface layer of cold and snow. The water was also not subdued: it moved with great freedom, waves that rolled in sharpened wind.
Sometimes I view running as an opportunity to think through things that have been troubling me or to come up with interesting ideas and creative projects. Yet on this particular run, I was struck with the beauty of the scene. And my mind stopped short at the noticing of detail. The sun was beginning to set and the sky was infiltrated with pale glowing pink, casting a spotlight on the water. As I ran towards and then away from the half-obscured sun, craning my neck continually to catch a last glimpse, I was filled with a sensation of wonder. Filling is really the most accurate word to use, because I had the feeling of absorbing something within me, of being nourished by this experience of beauty.
Yet as I ran back and returned to my apartment, this experience of wonder began to go limp. I started to think about how the wonder could be captured, explained, converted into something intelligible and lasting. I wanted to use the feeling to produce something whole, to create or to write, to think or to know. Without realizing it, I was operating under the assumption that the experience lacked value unless it could be shaped into some sharable form and placed at the service of a further end.
I think we face this temptation quite often. Our experience of the beautiful and good may begin with wonder, but we then feel the pressure to make sense of those things which produce in us awe – to be able to crystallize our thoughts, to draw a definitive conclusion. In my own area of academia, I feel this pressure too. Instead of remaining at the experience of wonder over a beautiful thought or turn of phrase, I want to funnel this wonder into an articulate and smart-sounding point. The jump from observation to interpretation is not wrong and is often necessary, but perhaps we can be over-hasty in making the transition. Perhaps we would do better to dwell a little longer in the wonder.
Ultimately I think this discussion comes down to our perception of knowledge and yearning for control. If knowledge is something we want and expect to possess, to have and to hold in some pure and self-enclosed form, then this pressure to produce whole thoughts is justified. But what if we saw knowledge instead as something we can only glimpse rather than grasp – as a dynamic, collaborative, continual seeking, rather than a quest for control?
The focus could then be shifted from our subjective opinions and desire to be intelligent and accomplished, towards the act of seeking itself and the love of the true, the good and the beautiful. Instead of constantly dissecting, criticizing, pronouncing and concluding, we could have the courage to leave a thought fragmented and floating in midair, the courage to be incomplete. We could appreciate the experience of wonder for its intrinsic value, for the way in which it points to the very transcendence of the things we observe and the world in which we live. Our discourse could move away from this deconstruction and constant undermining of what we experience, and emphasize affirmation and love, even if this love goes no further and makes no larger point.
In the end, the wonder I experienced in witnessing that sunset and frosted shoreside path led me to write this reflection, to produce something which can outlast the moment itself. And yet, even if the experience had remained within myself, even if the spark of inspiration had faded with the disappearing sun, or the feeling had evaded words entirely – yes, even then, the wonder would not have been without its value, complete by the very fact of its incompleteness, and the inability to contain its fleeting beauty.