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Maintaining a Sense of Wonder

September 10, 2010

More than at any other time of my life, I’ve spent this summer feeling like a tourist. And I guess that’s because I’ve spent a good part of this summer being a tourist. I had the opportunity to take a group of students on a study–tour trip to Europe––my first time to travel off of the North American continent. As one might imagine, I spent a good part of that two–week trip with a camera around my neck snapping pictures of just about everything.

At no other point in my life have I been so in awe of God’s creation and human culture. Everywhere I turned I found something captivating. Although I have absolutely no training and very little natural skill, I enjoy taking pictures, and I have a particular weakness for architecture. So, much to my wife’s dismay, I returned from my trip with a simply ridiculous number of pictures of buildings, and windows, and doors, and interesting architectural details. As well as mountains, billboards, sculptures, streams, paintings, people, countryside, and numerous other items. On nearly every street, with nearly every turn of my head I found a view or an object that created in me a sense of delight.

About half way through the trip the group was scheduled to spend the day in Lucerne. It was a lovely opportunity to slow down from the frantic pace of the trip, up until that point, to enjoy a day strolling around town. As a part of my “free” day I took a novel out by the north side of the lake, sat on a bench in the shade of a tree, and watched the sailboats set against the backdrop of the Alps. The beauty and the scale of these mountains truly convey the meaning of the sublime. The experience was transcendent.

As I was walking through Lucerne later in the day one of my students made a comment saying, “surely you don’t get used to beauty like this and just take it for granted.” I didn’t want to burst his bubble, but this is exactly what happens to all of us all the time. And it made me wonder, why is this? We see or hear or taste or experience something that touches us, moves us. But then, with repetition, it comes to lose its value. That thing which was so unique becomes less valuable and meaningful over time. We actually become acclimated and desensitized. This is a startling, a disappointing aspect of human nature. How can we become inured to an experience that once stirred us in such a significant manner?

As G. K. Chesterton points out in Orthodoxy, a sense of wonder is a part of our discovery of the world as a child. We are enchanted by the smallest details that become mundane and commonplace as we grow into adulthood. This deadening of the senses is something we come to accept as the norm. Chesterton describes the “business man” who destroys the beliefs of the young, “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” And, in response, he adds, “But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies.” Chesterton offers Christianity as a solution to this emotional ailment. The Christian worldview invites us to put on, once again, those lenses of childhood and see the people and world around us as God must have originally intended: with reverence, astonishment, and––most importantly––with an attitude of worship. Science reduces our world of wonder to facts and figures that we accept as commonplace rather than a fairyland of spectacle.

These moments of surprise––when we forget just how small a newborn baby is, for instance––are opportunities to relish and to contemplate God’s nature as well as his creation. Take a look around you: there’s beauty to be found there, I promise. Maybe it’s an elderly couple tenderly holding hands or a sunset that defies adequate description. Don’t be robbed of these experiences, these profound moments of joy. Don’t give in to malaise of the middle age “business man,” regardless of your physical age. There is mystery and wonder in everything, if only we’ll take a moment to step back, pause, and see the value and significance of those objects that we’ve observed every day with deadened, lackluster eyes.

Photo credit: http://www.old-picture.com/europe/Switzerland-Lucerne-Sisikon-Lake.htm

DJ Dycus is head of the English and Humanities department at Atlanta Christian College in Atlanta, Georgia. He teaches on a wide variety of topics, but his main research has been on graphic novels and comics as a art form.

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