Wonder and Wondering

In 1968, I met Stephen Williams at Fort Holabird, Maryland, where we were both enrolled in Army Spy School.

We had each enlisted in Army Intelligence after graduating from college as a pre-emptive move to avoid being drafted into the Infantry during the height of the Vietnam War. As soon as I met Stephen I was struck by his enthusiasm, lightheartedness, easy laugh, and big smile. As we became fast friends I learned to appreciate his brilliant intellect and deep knowledge of all things spiritual. When we ended up in Saigon together six months later, our connection deepened. His references to books I had never read triggered a voracious reading habit that I haven’t been able to shake for 50 years. (Not that I really want to.) When we returned from Vietnam, he asked me to be the best man in his wedding. Serendipitously, we both were assigned to Army Intelligence Headquarters in Washington, D.C. for our last year of service.

What always drew me to Stephen was his unconstrained curiosity and the unfiltered Light that he exuded. My army buddies and I nicknamed him Wonder because of these traits.

Sadly, I lost track of Wonder after the Army, but I’m still wondering what happened to him, and I am still trying to live my life with more light and lightness.

Einstein once said,

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”

Photo by Sérgio Rola, http://unsplash.com/sergio_rola
Credit: Sérgio Rola

Stephen made me more conscious of the mysterious possibilities in our lives, and I will be forever grateful.

In her 2015 book, The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson implores us to wonder more about the wonders of life. She believes we narrow our innate possibilities by putting limits on our bodies, minds, and spirits. This narrowness leads to narratives that preclude us from inquiring more deeply into different ways of seeing the world.

Robinson argues that we are victims of our attachment to “common sense” solutions.

In my experience, common sense is not only terribly uncommon, but it is also terribly constraining. We are more focused on physical and intellectual limits than on emotional and spiritual expansion. Narrow narratives are not good for our health.

While Robinson comes across in the book as an abstract and random thinker, I enjoyed getting a better insight into her mental “operating system,” because I was intrigued to know what kind of person and intellect could produce such incredible works of genius as she did with her internationally acclaimed books: Gilead, Home, and Lila.

In The Givenness of Things, even though she jumps around in her brilliant, random ways and contradicts herself occasionally, I appreciated her attempts to acknowledge the negatives in our cultures and in our religions, present a balanced perspective, and create an inspiring vision to move toward a more loving, harmonious, inclusive world.

Specifically, she acknowledges the negatives of our corrosive, corrupt, convoluted culture. She recognizes that we are inclined toward simplistic reductionism because it doesn’t require us to look deeply into complex or troubling questions.

While declaring a strong commitment to her Christian faith, she doesn’t shy away from the flaws and fraudulent practices in any religion.

To avoid painting a dismally bleak picture of human history, she also presents a balanced perspective on the positives we have been able to achieve through educational innovations, scientific breakthroughs, decreases in poverty, etc. She implores us not to simply give into facile disparagement of anything or anybody who challenges the narratives to which we fiercely cling.

Since I use these posts to share my thoughts on recent books I’ve read and/or movies I’ve seen, I should add that Steven Redelet, in his book The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World, points out that poverty rates have declined dramatically in the last 30 years. In fact, there are now one billion fewer people living on less than one dollar a day. To be clear, there are still one billion people living in extreme poverty, but we have made significant progress. The book helped me construct a more balanced perspective on our world situation.

To me, Robinson’s inspiring vision revolves around the hope that we all have the possibility of creating a new reality in our lives that is filled with love, grace, and compassion. This may require a more metaphysical approach to life. To elaborate, metaphysics has four key branches: theology, the study of god or gods; ontology, the study of being; cosmology, the study of the Universe; and epistemology, the study of knowledge.

Credit: Paul Morris | License: CC0
Credit: Paul Morris

Some people dismiss metaphysics as only appealing to people who don’t understand physics. Others suggest that, unlike science, which studies things; metaphysics studies nothing (no “thing”).

If you are wondering how all this works, here are some teasers that may increase your sense of wonder:

Theology explores the nature of the divine. Whether there is one god (monotheism), many gods (polytheism), or no gods (atheism); and whether it is unknown or unknowable whether any gods exist (agnosticism). It is also a philosophical study of whether a divine entity directly intervenes in the world (theism), or if its sole function is to be the first cause of the universe (deism).

Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, and existing, as well as the basic categories of being and their interrelationships. Ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist, and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences. For example, Aristotle’s ontological categories are the ways in which a being may be addressed simply as a being, such as:

  • What it is (its essence)
  • How it is (its qualitativeness)
  • How much it is (quantitativeness)
  • Where it is (its relatedness to other beings)
Portrait bust of Marcus Aurelius, Art Institute, Chicago | Author: Ryan Baumann | License: CC BY 2.0
Title: Portrait bust of Marcus Aurelius, Art Institute, Chicago | Author: Ryan Baumann | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0

Metaphysical cosmology has been described as the placing of man in the universe in relationship to all other entities. This is exemplified by Marcus Aurelius’s observation: “He who does not know what the world is does not know where he is, and he who does not know for what purpose the world exists, does not know who he is, nor what the world is.”

Epistemology is also referred to as “theory of knowledge”. Concisely, it is the study of knowledge and justified belief. It questions what knowledge is and how it can be acquired, and the extent to which knowledge is pertinent to any given subject or entity. Much of the debate in this field has focused on the philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge and how it related to connected notions such as truth, belief, and justification.

All of these branches of metaphysics deserve further investigation and inquiry. In my experience, however, I have found that active inquiry is rare.

On a personal level, think of the last time you were in a conversation in which the other person genuinely asked questions about who you are, what you think, or how you feel.

Have you been wondering why people haven’t wondered about these aspects of your life?

But let’s get concrete about these abstract ideas. Sometimes it’s helpful to get a better insight on the big questions in life by looking through the eyes of a child. When I told my older daughter that I was writing this post, she suggested that I read the book Wonder, a touching and poignant story of Auggie Pullman, a child who was born with a horribly deformed face. Not only did this child have to endure 27 surgeries, he also had to face 5th grade and the meanness of some of the other children at his school. What we learn through his experience is that beneath Auggie’s appearance is a heart of gold and a very strong intellect. We learn about the courageous and generous acts of kindness he encounters in school as well as the heinous acts of hateful behavior from other parents and kids. The book left me wondering:

  • Why we don’t wonder more about our choices to be kind or not – even kinder than what is “necessary”?
  • Why we don’t wonder more about the unique possibilities each moment brings us?
  • Why we don’t wonder more about our being?
  • Why we don’t wonder more about our sense of place in the universe?
  • Why we don’t wonder more about the sources and evolution of “knowledge”?
  • Why we don’t live in a state of wonder more than we?

We may be more open to wondering about the wonders of the world if we are able to accept the brevity and embrace the beauty of our lives in all its forms and to be more curious about the “whys” of our lives. I feel fortunate to have had many friends in my life who have encouraged me to wonder. I’m still wondering if I will ever connect with my Army friend, the Wonder. Stephen, if you read this post, please give me a call. And don’t be surprised if I show up on your doorstep one day to wonder anew how are lives have changed and evolved over the past 50 years.

Also published on Medium.

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