I believe we choose to see wonder. We can also choose not to.
In the closing scene of The Polar Express, the narrator describes how only those who believe in Christmas can still hear the ringing of Santa’s silver bell.
“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”
It’s cute and sentimental, bittersweet and intended to pull heart strings–and I think it happens to be true. Figuratively if not literally. I would say they are describing wonder and they neglect to tell how this deafness, this loss of wonder, comes about.
We can practice seeing wonder. We can practice ignoring it. Either way, we’ll improve. That’s what practice does. It doesn’t “make perfect” but it does make better by training our hearts and literally forming our minds. Those neural pathways get deepened or else atrophy while we deepen others.
I know, discussion of wonder and neural pathways don’t seem to go together. I mean, unless you’re able to remain amazed at the workings of the human brain, which frankly, are pretty bloody amazing, aren’t they? Your brain is turning these squiggles into words and these words form ideas, in your head, maybe even in my voice, or what you imagine would be my voice. Just because we’re used to it doesn’t make it any less wondrous. Do we still see that?
We’ve all heard the saying that “it’s not those who have everything they want who are grateful but those who are grateful who have everything they want.”
Seeing wonder may work the same way. It’s not because our lives are especially exploding with miracles and bedazzlement that we see wonder. Rather, because we choose to see wonder, our lives begin to overflow with moments that amaze us. Some of them leave us breathless.
Right about here, I have to say if you’ve not read my other writing, I walk this teensy thin line between wide-eyed sincerity and “Oh, my gosh, why does the world suck so much and when will we open our eyes and deal with it? Seriously!” All from the perspective of faith in Jesus and a bedrock belief in grace. I can go about two hundred words before I need to point out that I’m not Pollyana.
But I’m serious. I’ve thought about this a lot and I’m concluding that tiny miracles abound. Yes, two days ago, a friend described the brutal indifference of a man whose wife is dying of COVID. Choosing to see wonder doesn’t make the world stop sucking and people don’t suddenly become glittery angels, sparkling like Twilight-style vampires. (I’ve seen the memes, okay?). You can keep your cynicism about the human race if you need to. But if you keep reading, I’m going to tell you something hopeful, anyway.
Yesterday, our neighbor Ron brought his snowblower over and cleared out our driveway. Random Act of Kindness?
Not exactly a miracle, right? Or is it? Is it a wonder? Is kindness in our world a wonder?
Maybe it is.
Standing at the top of Two Bears, my favorite local hike, between the bears, looking down at the coat of new snow (that no longer filled my driveway), gulping in cold air, then looking up to watch the clouds uncover the full moon. Just another hike on a trail I’ve done hundreds of times, literally. Is the sight still a wonder?
I’m not talking about faking it or pretending I am moved. I’m describing a way of seeing.
I don’t mean forced cheer. Here’s a crazy thing: you can be depressed as hell and still see wonder. Sometimes, in that moment, wonder helps. Sometimes not. You can still see it.
At this point, my writerly instinct (like my Spidey Tingle, but for writing) says I’m supposed to define, or give parameters, for “Wonder.”
“If you’re telling us to ‘see wonder,’ Mike, just what the blue blazes are you talking about.”
But telling you exactly what it is and isn’t would defeat the point. It’s not a thing to see but a way to see. Where can you see it?
Of course I feel great wonder at crashing waterfalls and vistas from mountaintops. But snowfall may be the ideal example of what I’m trying to convey. We lived in Nicaragua for seven years. During that span we visited the US during the summertime. I saw snow once or twice up in the mountains. Did I see snow fall even once during those seven years?
We moved back and, in addition to having lost absolutely all my tolerance to cold (read: wimpy), my sense of wonder for falling snow had reawakened. The snow didn’t change; I did.
I don’t love winter. I refer to it is “my fourth favorite season.” After three-plus years back, I have gotten tougher about being able to handle cold–I’ll run outside without a coat and even barefoot, like the fool I sometimes am–and I am trying, conciously, not to hate four-plus months of my life every year. Shortened days, twilight at 3:30 PM, and a touch of that old seasonal affective depression, don’t exactly help me to look forward to this season, nor does weather and temperatures that prohibit playing the sports I love most.
So I can hate snowfall. Like, hate it. But I don’t. That’s a choice.
Instead, I try to see it. Let it mesmerize me.
At the risk of paraphrasing the lyrics to “My Favorite Things,” here are a few for me: Sunsets. Sunrises. The cat sprawled out, front paw covering her furry face as if to say, “The world, it’s all too much.” My late octogenerian neighbor, Georgia, taking pictures of me and Corin playing basketball in the cul-de-sac so she can print them out for us.
When Kim sees me and smiles.
When I’m on the top of Two Bears, I breathe and pray and look down the river that disappears into the horizon. I’m not always in a chipper mood when I reach the top, though usually the exertion lifts my spirits. But even when I’m irritated or distracted or depressed, if I give it a chance, wonder can seep in.
We refer to “seeing the world through a child’s eyes.” Children often have a greater capacity for wonder than we do. Why? Cynicism hasn’t seeped in. They aren’t yet bored, disillusioned, calloused.
Don’t get me wrong. We may have good reasons and legit causes for those conditions. I’m not criticizing. But we don’t want to surrender to ennui or indifference, simply because we have good reason to sink into them. Speaking for myself, I don’t.
When Kim and I were parents of young children, which at the time seemed like our entire lives and even looking back still appears to have been most of our lives, she coined the phrase, “remember to see the wonder.” There is so much wonder to see when raising a small child–and the role of parenting is demanding, exhausting, and often overwhelming. It becomes normal to survive the day to day, the minute to minute, and we forget to step back and behold the extraordinary, happening right in front of us. “See the wonder” became our rallying cry, our encouragement to each other to take a breath, raise our heads above the fray, and truly see this wonder of a child, this growing miracle in (perpetual) motion.*
I believe seeing wonder is more than recognizing that something is beautiful. You can acknowledge beauty without letting it touch your soul. People are surrounded by beauty all day long and feel nothing. Seeing wonder means both recognizing and opening to that beauty, allowing it to move us, to move in us.
As I meditated on this idea–while hiking–it struck me that perhaps God intended for us to live in a constant state of wonder. I don’t know that we can–and for the love of grace, I don’t mean that we should feel guilt or shame that we don’t–but I could imagine God expressing love this way, offering us a world in which we could see wonder all around us, in each moment.
It would take practice.
Have a blessed Christmas, Everyone.
*Of course, it also became the comment when one of our children made an extraordinary mess. “Oh, look, they flooded the bathroom and it’s pouring into the basement. Are you seeing the wonder?” We have to find a way to laugh when we’re parents.