Wondering about Wonder

From The School of Life blog, a few thoughts about wonder and its role in our lives.


A life lived without a sense of wonder can easily drift into despair. But the experience of wonder does not necessarily make life easy either. Sometimes, when it brings us close to what William Wordsworth called “the utmost that we know/both of ourselves and of the universe,” wonder verges on terror. In many cultures, this kind of wonder, which we usually call awe, was and is associated with visions of the divine. Two striking examples, which were probably first written down at about the same time, come from The Book of Job and The Bhagavad Gita. In verses 38 to 41 of the former, Jahweh – magnificent and terrifying – speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, challenging him as to what he knows of creation and death, the deep seas and the breadth of the earth: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? ...When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?” In Chapter 11 of the latter (made famous in the West by Robert Oppenheimer's citation after the explosion of the first atomic bomb), Krishna displays his universal form, which contains all beings and faces every way at once with the radiance of a thousand suns and is at the same time their negation: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

From the 18th century onwards philosophers and poets in Europe developed ways of talking about awe without necessarily referring to the supernatural. Great natural phenomena such as high mountains were seen as “sublime,” giving rise to what Edmund Burke described as a state of astonishment “in which all [thought is] suspended with some degree of horror. The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it.” In the early 20th century Rainer Maria Rilke would write of seeing angelic beauty as “nothing but the beginning of terror that we are still able to bear, and we revere it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us.” Nan Shepherd, who walked in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland in the mid 20th century, had a gentler but no less profound vision: “Then I looked down; and at my feet opened a gulf of brightness so profound my mind stopped.”

But between the extremes of despair and transcendent awe is a wide and diverse country. And most of us find that wonder and wonders manifest at least as much in this great middle realm, where we live most of the time, as at the borders. This is where experiences such as mine with the patch of light in the kitchen happen, along with countless others. Taking it a step further, I think most of us find that wonder – a profound encounter between an external reality and our conscious self – is essential to making us fully human in the normal run of life, capable of nurturing hope even in circumstances of doubt, disappointment or loss. And if I am right then wonder is fundamentally important to our future, and the better acquainted with it we are the better things can be not only for ourselves and for others.