The Power of Wonder

Notes on the progressive loss of the primordial human ability to feel wonder – one of the keys to creativity and hope.

Illustration by Julio Fuentes | All rights reserved

Illustration by Julio Fuentes | All rights reserved

Gazing at the heavens, our first book, deep laughter or the perfection of mathematics. We share the same planet in an expanding universe and we marvel at its complexity, beauty and mystery. Wonder forms part of our essential nature and is one of the keys to creativity and hope.

“Philosophy begins with wonder. And, in the end, when philosophical thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”

Alfred North Whitehead

“The vocabulary of wonder has its Latin roots in admiratio, which means ‘admiration’ or ‘astonishment’. The word admiratio is composed of two parts: ad meaning ‘towards’ or ‘in the direction of’, and miratio meaning ‘to look at’ or ‘to observe’. Together, these two parts form a word that refers to the action of looking with admiration or wonder.”

ChatGPT takes no more than a second to offer up a possible etymology of the word wonder. Isn’t that wonderful? And yet, the progressive loss of this primordial human ability may be the litmus test for other, more serious losses. Everything that we are forgetting due to the fascination generated by the long arm of technology. Omnipresent as it is in our lives, we criticise it ardently, even though at the same time each of our daily actions is conditioned by the wonders of applied science that governments and major corporations vie over with a view to world domination. 

Something profound is lost in this race forwards where we trust that the tools that have allowed us to master nature will also manage to save us from the plausible possibility of extinction. We should wonder at our anthropocentric arrogance induced by that ineffable tendency to explain “reality” from a mutilated intellect. Perhaps we have ceased to be amazed by that which is essential: the feeling of astonishment and awe buried in the depths of our being when we behold the wonder of existence, the stupefied innocence of embracing life and the world, its intense mystery and its immaculate diversity.

The discovery of the sky

“Wonder is a sense of humility when faced with the greatness of our surroundings.”

William James

It may have happened in childhood, when towns and cities were not yet covered in an ever-growing veil of light pollution. Or the discovery may have come later. It is hard to imagine which living creature might have been the first to marvel at the wonder of the night sky – a primordial awe shared by all humankind when we gaze at the heavens, precursor to the vast astonishment we have felt over the centuries at the size and magnitude of the universe known and yet to be known.

The beauty of that which is invisible

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

W.B. Yeats

In an ice crystal, a hexagon that foreshadows an infinite library; in the wings of an insect, the iridescent dream that endures through the years until it becomes a pattern for art to draw and science to explain; in a secret and solitary seed, a tree that will seek out the sky. Within the smallest thing, ever smaller particles, until the treasure of the invisible worlds that we have only begun to glimpse – despite the portentous discovery of that spectrum that is electric and magnetic – attracts us and shakes us to reveal all that we have not seen at our feet, while “reality” slips away between inverted commas.

The first book

“An open book is a talking brain; closed, a waiting friend; forgotten, a forgiving soul; destroyed, a heart that cries.”

Hindu proverb

We looked at it carefully without opening it. It was the first of many. We ran our hands over it with a soft glow soon forgotten. But the spell would be long-lasting. We still didn’t dare to open it, or we lingered out of a strange pleasure that foreshadowed the most secret of eroticisms. It was in our hands, the cover was enigmatic, we were unaware that this instant would be the beginning of an unending exploration. It did not happen with the papyrus, nor the codex, nor in the Gutenberg Galaxy, nor in the successive electronic media that don’t quite manage to fill us with wonder. It is the only book that matters, and it contains all others. It is your book, everyone’s book.

Illustration by Julio Fuentes | All rights reserved

Illustration by Julio Fuentes | All rights reserved

Awareness of the conscience(s)

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.”

William James

The causes of wonder are as numerous as the human and non-human intelligences that populate this planet. But there is a singular cause of wonder, perhaps the source of all wonder, which ushers in the moment when we first become aware of our potential as astonished beings. It is the discovery of consciousness, defined as a subject that thinks, feels and experiences, by itself, glimpsing all that it could be and do in this world that is never what it seems. Methodical doubt protects us from our false beliefs, but to think of ourselves as separate from the mineral, vegetable and animal world is an obstinate schism.

Mathematical fascination

“Mathematics is a field where discovery, invention and creativity are possible.”

Freeman Dyson

How can such precise knowledge exist when numbers and signs are always ineffable? When did you sense that there was a profound order within which resonates the music of spheres and the spheres of a music that adds, subtracts, multiplies, divides, allows for weights and measures, equations of all degrees, formulas crowned by a sublime simplicity? What enigmatic intelligence could have imagined the vast empire of mathematics in all its complexity and splendour? Is it also part of the shadows? Or is its infinite order the indispensable beacon that will illuminate the most persistent doubts?

Deep laughter

“Laughter is the music of the soul.”

Lailah Gifty Akita

It is hidden under many layers, from the forced smile of social conventions to the short laughter of bad jokes. Everyone senses that there is more to the ever-astonishing secret of joy and its curious manifestations. It is no easy task to find the source of this resounding laughter that creates a melody that tunes us in, even when we are out of tune. Fear of ridicule is one of the great enemies of deep laughter. Laughing until we cry reminds us that we have all heard the great burst of laughter that each person comes to terms with as best as they can. Knowing how to laugh is a serious and wondrous matter.

Illustration by Julio Fuentes | All rights reserved

Illustration by Julio Fuentes | All rights reserved

Ars longa, vita brevis

“Art is a way of exploring the awe and wonder of life, and sharing that exploration with others.”

David Hockney

Matter is indecisive. It always waits for its power to become action. It waits within the most unlikely materials. It longs to yield, it loves to metamorphose, it desires what your soul needs. In a distant cavern, in clay or marble, on blank pages, on unmarked sheets of music paper, on empty stages, on silent screens, in a rusty cask dragged along by the tide. Each creature possesses the secret of art which, like life, may be brief or long-lasting. Matter is mysterious, like inspiration, epiphanies, eurekas or the endurance of beauty over time.

The shadow of wonder

“Depression can be an invitation to explore our inner world and find wonder in the complexity and beauty of our psyche.”

Carl G. Jung

Dark night of the soul, black cloud, low spirits, intense malaise, fear, nightmares, unutterable secrets, disillusionment, anxiety, despair. Countless therapies from all times and schools show us the way out, the arduous task of walking the path of shadows and being reborn as wonderstruck beings, once again. Meanwhile we consume dystopias, horizonless futures, self-fulfilling prophecies, the great shadow of a species that thought itself the measure of all things. We sense once again that true life is missing and, at the same time, we know that everything could be different. The impossible only takes a little longer, even if everything speeds up and the Great Clock does not stop.

The intimate symphony

“The oceanic feeling is a deep connection with life, a sense of awe and humility before the grandeur of the universe.”

Romain Rolland

We are born under certain archetypes, we are born conditioned, we are born as a blank slate, we are born once or many times. We are told that in the first few years of life we exist in a maternal limbo that slowly leads to us discovering the world. At this point we differentiate ourselves, we begin to build an ego that allows us to take on the complex and fascinating task of existing. All emotions are stored up. We suffer adolescence, we love youth, we become (or don’t become) responsible adults, but at some point we are touched with the inspiration… There was always something more, something ageless, the heights we knew and forgot. But the mystery remains intact: an intimate symphony that wells from deep listening, from looking for the first time, from feeling the strangest and most familiar of pulsations. Is it Love? Is it a new awakening? Is it self-deception or is it our salvation?

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