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[Chalice] Make Room for Wonder [Chalice]

Presented February 16, 2014, by Susan Morrison Hebble

Listen to a recording of "Make Room for Wonder"
29:55 minutes - 27.4 MB - Make Room for Wonder .mp3 file.


"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead -his eyes are closed."
--Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies


When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
--Walt Whitman


Look at the sky! For all the days you may live, look at the sky and never lose it. It is there. It will always be there, if only you can see it.
--Doris Lund

The Talk

I understand that I owe Dr. Gervasi, your speaker two weeks ago, a thank you. His talk, "The Gift of Doubt," served serendipitously as a thoughtful introduction to mine.

I enjoyed listening to Dr. Gervasi's presentation on this church's website. To refresh your memories, Dr. Gervasi said some provocative things about doubt: he said the "fear of doubt and the drive for certainty is tainting not only some religious thinking, but also our critical thinking." In stressing the importance of doubt, he proposes that we perhaps revise how we regard doubt, that we recognize a connection between doubt and-the focus of my talk-wonder. For if we can see doubt as wonder, we may be less fearful. Even as "wonder itself implies doubt," wonder, he suggests, is "a kind of acknowledgement that we have not exhausted the full knowledge of the phenomenon, of the experience." And that experience-and here he stresses that experience, not dogma is key-provides a kind of connection between the self and the world, between the self and religion.

The subject of wonder is a complicated one, all the more complicated in fact because we throw the word-its variations and synonyms-around, like so much salt on our dinner plates.

"How are you doing?" you might ask me. "Wonderful!" may be my stock reply. . . . when actually my knees hurt a bit; I could use some more sleep, and I'm having a not-great hair day. "How was the movie?" one might ask a co-worker. "Amazing!" might be the answer, even though "Anchorman 2" is really pretty formulaic, with a few good gags and the reliably amusing Will Ferrell. And from a teenager or young adult, to virtually any question you'll likely get the ubiquitous response, "Awesome," usually delivered with either a sense of ennui or overabundant enthusiasm.

While language can help us understand experience, it can also dilute experience. We may declare things "awesome, amazing, incredible, or wonderful," but in doing so-casually and often-the less we trust those words to mean what they are supposed to mean. So I ask you today to hit the re-set button on language, and let's look at what is really wonderful, in the Merriam-Webster sense of the word.

Wonder is not simply warm and fuzzy, nor is it trite or banal or casual. Rather, it is

  1. "a cause of astonishment or admiration," or "a miracle"
  2. "the quality of exciting amazed admiration," "rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one's experience"; and-
  3. a nod to Dr. Gervasi here: "a feeling of doubt or uncertainty."

Dr. Gervasi's talk brought to mind for me a conversation I had as a teenager with a then middle-aged family friend. He drew a small circle on a blank page and said, "here's what you know now," pointing inside the circle. Then he pointed to the vast area outside the circle and said, "here's what you don't know." He drew a larger circle; "in a few years, here's what you will know." And again, pointing at the area outside the circle, "here's what you won't know." His message was clear: you can always learn more; you will gain knowledge and experience, ever stretching the circle further and further out, but always there will be that vast, infinite space outside of that circle, far more unknown than known, far more unknow-able than know-able.

This was a kind and friendly man, but I realized, later in my life, that he seemed disappointed in life, unhappy in his profession, cynical, jaded, and sad. Such was his reaction to that infinite space outside the circle-I think he regarded it with frustration and resentment. And I think he thought he was doing me a favor, offering a sort of cautionary tale not to expect too much from life. But my response was just the opposite-I said "Wow," not with fear and dread, but with awe and admiration. I remember thinking: I'd better pay attention, for what a strange and amazing thing life is.

My friend and I both looked at that space outside the circle with wonder-he perhaps more with "doubt or uncertainty," and I with "rapt astonishment at something awesomely mysterious."

Essentially wonder can be a heady mix of fear and awe, uncertainty and admiration; it suggests that some experience or some thing is inexplicable, is mysterious, and, therefore, worthy of our appreciation or, fear, or at least, our acknowledgment. We often associate wonder with religion-after all, Christian theologies bank on the element of wonder to ensure faith in the most mysterious idea of all: God. And, I suspect, a lot of UUs, with our emphasis on the rational mind and humanist principles, are wary of wonder as a religious concept. Yet there it is, mentioned in the first source of our UU religious heritage: we acknowledge that we may draw from Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. So while I'd like to suggest here that wonder is part of our very secular lives, if only we can see it, I want us to recognize, too, that wonder may indeed offer that necessary link between our ordinary Monday selves and our spiritual Sunday selves.

But how do we cultivate a positive sense of wonder in an age of cynicism? For ours is, increasingly, a cynical world, a world that seems to encourage and perhaps even reward insincerity, disdain, distrust. We see this notion in Christmas creep-the manufactured Christmas spirit imposed on us starting in October; we hear it in catty comments questioning the motives of public figures who dare show emotion; and every time we watch what is called "reality TV, " we conspire to accept as "true" these carefully scripted and edited snippets of contrived lives, situations, relationships. Doesn't it seem as if we are swapping out real thought and sincerity for amusement and profit?

And I get that reaction, I really do. Amusement and profit are not in and of themselves bad things, after all. But I also think we rely on cynicism as a sort of coping mechanism, because wonder-real emotion and real uncertainty-is scary business. We like to know; we like to feel like we have the answers; we like to seem sophisticated; we like to appear above the fray rather than mired in awe or mystery.

And as Americans in particular, we are also inclined to look forward, to seek out the next big thing, rather than dwell on the last big thing. We become jaded, even impatient, accustomed as we are to perpetual invention and novelty. So instead of wondering at the miracle that is the cell phone, we complain that our internet connection is too slow or that our operating system is outdated or that the picture resolution isn't perfect. You can watch the Olympics from Sochi, Russia as they are happening. . . . in the palm of your hand! If that isn't "wonderful," I don't know what is!!

So while it's easy, or self-protective, or amusing to be cynical or presumptuous about the world, we are limiting ourselves with such a point of view. In his 2006 commencement address to the graduates of Knox College, Stephen Colbert, really one of the great minds of our generation, cautioned against cynicism:

[Those] who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.

Generally, the only people who can get away with showing wonder are children. And don't we envy them for it??? But that child-like wonder doesn't dissolve just because we grow up. Instead, I think a couple of things happen that bury that potential of wonder under layers of age and other stuff-for one thing, we become accustomed to otherwise amazing things, like our cell phones, airplanes, or sunrises; for another, we get caught up in minutiae-work and seemingly endless lists of chores or worries; and maybe we become fragile or insecure, overwhelmed by forces beyond our control. Perhaps the world is too much with us, as poet William Wordsworth lamented (in 1807!). We just don't have the time or energy to do something so cliché as "stop and smell the roses." John Lennon sang, "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans." And wonder is what happens when we're not paying attention.

A few of years ago, a "wonderful" video went viral-I love that phrase, "went viral," like a disease!!-My guess is that some of you have seen this video, which got nearly 5 million hits. The footage is of a double rainbow in Yosemite National Park. But the reason this video became so popular-for a few weeks, anyway-was because of the reaction we hear in the background. For 3 ½ minutes, we can hear the hiker filming the rainbows not just oohing and aahing about this natural phenomenon in a phenomenally natural setting; rather his vocal enthusiasm, his awe, his astonishment regarding this experience evolves into sobbing and laughing-sometimes simultaneously, and between sobs the hiker repeatedly, almost pleadingly, throws out the ultimate existential question, "What does it mean?"

What's interesting, too, is to consider the comments posted in response to this video: most describe it as 'hilarious" or as "awkward"; of course the very cynical viewers charge that the hiker must be stoned or drunk, for why else would he let loose as he does. (By the way, the hiker, since identified as Paul Vasquez, has insisted he was only under the influence of the awesomeness of nature.) But I ask, why do we need to explain this man's reaction to nature's beauty? Can't his reaction-awe and appreciation and uncertainty all at once-be enough for us?

Vasquez clearly had a child-like capacity for wonder-an attitude that American transcendentalists like Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau insist is necessary to be truly spiritual. And you don't go hiking in Yosemite unless you are prepared to be awed. But wonder, and therefore the capacity for spirituality, is all around us. Sometimes it's easy to seek out-for what is art, music, poetry, even science if not the expression of wonder? But sometimes it creeps up on us, catches us by surprise. But we have to make room for it.

Author and activist Anne Lamott says that wonder is to be appreciated, especially as we find it unexpectedly and even when it brings us great sorrow. In her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, she writes:

"Life is motion, change, stagnation, bloom; nothing ever seems to happen, or awful stuff happens, or beautiful stuff happens, and we say, 'Amen.' Just when we think we've gotten things all lined up nicely, a rogue wave washes it all away, or deposits on the shore a [a particular shell] that we've been looking for all our lives, or a big chunk of fossilized whale bone, honeycombed with minuscule cells of color, and we say, 'Wow.'"

A few years ago, on a spring morning, I went into my backyard and startled a visitor. On my generic, suburban fenced-in lawn, there stood a female deer, looking directly at me. She was near the back corner of our lot, and when I realized she was there, I was just 5 feet from her. . . . And from the two fawns she had just birthed. With Interstate 294 humming in the background and lawn mowers growling from neighboring yards, this mama had delivered her babies in the relative comfort of a patch of myrtle between a blue spruce and a utility pole. She stood watching me, looking tired but not terribly concerned, as she, well, ate the afterbirth, there in my yard. I apologized to her for intruding, and slowly retreated from what had been my lawn and what was now, I realized, not mine at all. Wonder, you see, can be found in the most ordinary places!

And wonder can be inspired by the least likely people. So far, one of my favorite moments of these Winter Olympics has been the gold medal slope-style snowboarding victory of Sage Kotsenberg. In an upset victory, the 20-year-old from Park City, Utah won the first US gold medal after he decided at the last minute to include a trick he'd never even tried before. He was feeling "super mellow," he said, so why not? As many a journalist has noted, Kotsenburg approaches the sport-and his Olympic participation-with a childlike wonder that reminds us all of what the Olympics can mean, especially in contrast to the intense stress we assign to veteran athletes like Bode Miller or Shani Davis, whom we expect to keep collecting medals like Boy Scout badges: just go earn another one, guys! Kotsenburg's reaction to his own win is filled with such pure joy and awe that you can't help catching a bit of the wonder that seems to spill from him, like residual fairy dust. Before you know it, you'll be sounding like this sweet, shaggy man-child, using phrases like "gnarly," or "stoked" or, "spoice," which the Urban Dictionary defines as "an exclamation of gratitude towards life. It's the proper word to use when you find yourself in a situation involving a multitude of positive things at once. You may only utter it with pure joy behind it." Spoice . . .

For the meditation, we were inspired, I hope, by Walt Whitman's poem, "I heard the Learn'd Astronomer." In that poem, Whitman articulates what in the 1860s was becoming a radical and popular notion-that we risk losing sight of the miraculous if we get caught up in the routine, in the mechanics, of things. This was a theme of the American transcendentalists, who believed that "life is frittered away by detail" as men lead lives "of quiet desperation." So over one hundred and fifty-years ago, the warning bells were going off: "pay attention!" Emerson demanded from Unitarian pulpit to corner soapbox; "Be aware!" Thoreau insisted from the edge of Walden Pond; "Participate!" Whitman might as well have yelled from the rooftops of Concord.

And if we do these things-if we pay attention, are aware, and participate-what wondrous things might we behold? Sure it's not every day a deer delivers babies in your back yard, but wonder is all around. So when you are watching the Olympics, say the ice skating, ignore the technical dissection of every triple toe loop and double axle, and take in the lovely, wondrous 4-minute experience of music and body and physics co-mingling into artistry. And when you go outside today, before cursing the ice or groaning at the piles of snow, stop for a moment and think of the snowflakes, the billions of crystal perfect snowflakes collectively swathing this warm and comforting home in white; and then look at the sky, really look at it-it's never the same sky twice, after all. And, the easiest thing of all, every day, look at at least one thing in the world as if through a child's eyes and see anew what we now take for granted.

Anne Lamott writes, "Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. . . . . Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business." (85). Or, as the great philosopher Ferris Bueller put it, "Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

I'll close with a story that I think of whenever I read Whitman's poem: this is a true story, an image really, from my past, from my memory. And those who were there-my parents and Ben-may remember this differently.

Jul 20, 1969. I was nearly 8-years-old and with my family, my cousins, my Aunt Joyce, and my grandparents for a week's stay at Jolin's Resort in northern Wisconsin. Now don't picture the fancy "resorts" that you see on TV these days-with water slides and sailboats and rock bands playing on the shoreline. No, Jolin's was an old fishing resort with cabins clustered among the evergreens on the edge of one of those lovely, crystal clear Northwoods lakes-"gin clear," as the locals say. The cabins were basic and small, some with a tiny kitchenette. Each morning, my grandmother would make breakfast for the lot of us; then we'd be off to whatever adventures awaited: sandcastle-building, pier-jumping, fishing for blue gill or rainbow trout. The cabins did have electricity, as I recall, but no televisions.

But on July 20, 1969 we needed a TV. We all trudged-some of us kids reluctantly so-down the sandy, pine-needly path to Jolin's bar, a plain building where local fisherman and vacationers could get a beer, a coca cola, a hamburger, and have a game of pinball. On that night, we went for the TV, for Jolin's bar had the only TV within miles, and something important-something wondrous-was about to happen. Here's what I remember: my Dad pulled me away from the pinball machine and told me I had to see this, I had to see Apollo 11 land on the moon. The MOON! I remember the small black and white TV above the bar, and all the patrons sitting with "rapt attention" as the calm voice of Walter Cronkite chronicled this moment in our shared human history.

I also remember looking around noticing that my grandfather wasn't among this audience. Now Ben Kelley was born in 1898, several years after his parents immigrated to North America from Ireland. For many years, Ben and his brother, with the help of my grandmother who kept the books, ran a successful Ford dealership founded by their father in the town of Marengo, in Northern Illinois. Hardworking and devoted to his family, Grandpa Ben was not deeply religious that I knew of, although his family was prominent in the local Presbyterian Church. He didn't talk much, as I recall, but he looked on us grandkids with quiet affection, I do remember, quick with a smile and a handful of roasted chestnuts.

But where had he gone, that July night? Indeed, he'd talked about the fact that just 65 years earlier-in 1904--his father had driven the first horseless carriage-that's a car to you and me--into McHenry County, and now we were sending men to the moon. So why wasn't he perched on a bar stool, staring at the fuzzy images on the TV? Well, he'd found a better place to witness this giant leap for mankind. Outside, in a clearing with a fine view of the sky, there stood my grandfather, his back to the glow of the tavern, his head up, looking at the moon and all that space around it, wondering, surely, at what a strange and amazing thing life is.


To worship is to stand in awe under a heaven of stars, before a flower, a leaf in sunlight, or a grain of sand.
To worship is to be silent, receptive, before a tree astir with the wind, or the passing shadow of a cloud.
To worship is to work with dedication and with skill; it is to pause from work and listen to a strain of music.
Worship is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond.
It is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak; it is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal.
--Jacob Trapp

Works Cited

©2014 Susan Morrison Hebble

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, Susan Morrison 2014. Make Room for Wonder, /talks/20140216.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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