My Turn: Awaken the lost sense of wonder

For the Monitor
Published: 8/22/2021 8:00:12 AM

We live in serious times. All around there is anger and fear, stereotyping and conspiracy theories. People wade through the trash heap of illusions and lies seeking scraps of truth.

We are burdened with systemic racism. White supremacists are emboldened. A preponderance of the population rankles at the prerogative of the wealthy and their control of political power. And we are being challenged to take seriously the fragility of the earth’s environmental health. Overarching these stresses are the unrelenting questions — Whose side are you on? Who are your friends? Who are your foes?

However, if revived, there is an aspect of human nature that may blur the line between “sides” and refocus people’s perception of the “foe.” This element of human nature has atrophied in contemporary times. Even so, it remains essential for poets, artists, philosophers, scientists and theologians. It can also enhance the effectiveness of politicians and inform relationships among the populous.

This human attribute is the beginning of knowledge, science, faith and curiosity. According to author, activist and human rights advocate, Valarie Kaur, this uniquely human ability is accessible to everyone. It is the sense of wonder.

Wonder is discovered in the ancient stories illustrated in the constellations of stars. We can imagine those ancient people, after being inspired by the wonders of the sky, looking down to see the wonders of the earth — the expansive land and sea, intricacies of the flora and fauna, and the wonder of humanity.

Today, the wonder in some people still begins out under the stars. Contemporary astronomy reminds us that we are seeing the light from the immense energy of stars reaching us from past billions of light-years. We wonder about our existence in such a tiny place and for such a short time. It is a wonder to realize that plants, animals and humans are made up only of the stardust and water of the earth. The vast night sky still awakens the capacity to wonder.

However, today a significant percentage of people, surrounded by electric lights, will never know the wonder of wandering under the night sky. Also, there are many economically or otherwise challenged people who cannot take time out to wander under the stars. Just to survive, they are consumed with extended hours of work to overcome systemic injustice, provide food and shelter for families, finance and take care of their sick. These people need help to gain the gift of wonder. It falls upon those of us who are privileged, to not only work for justice but also to bring the wonder of human existence into our communities.

Experiencing the night sky is only a beginning. Take time to go to a mountaintop to view the wonder of the expansive of hills, river valleys, deserts, green forests, the ocean surf. Follow an ant carrying something twice its size and weight back to the colony. Know the sense of wonder in the birth of a child. Know the sense of wonder in the construction of majestic skyscrapers or the complexity of manufacturing machines.

Learn about the human genome or the discovery of a new vaccine. Wonder at the life of a hive of bees, a mockingbird’s repertoire of songs, the peas in a pod. Or read Until the End of Time by physicist Brian Greene. Be spellbound as he describes the human brain as “a collection of mindless, thoughtless, emotionless swarming particles” that create consciousness, emotions and reasoning. If we pay attention, everything we can see, hear, feel, touch, smell or reason may be a stimulus for wonder.

The sense of wonder can be inspired by friends and neighbors and also by the stranger or the enemy. I have been in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory where I have stood with a Palestinian farmer overlooking his dry, rock-strewn farmland, threatened by the expansion of an illegal Israeli settlement. I saw barren, at-risk land, impossible to farm. However, Abu Assam showed me wonder. As he carefully monitored the drip irrigation of his olive trees and watered his vegetable garden with a bucket, he said, “This is the most fertile land in the world!” I had seen only the desolation. Abu Assam showed me his wonder of a land of milk and honey.

Back home in New Hampshire, there is a small struggling church. The members noted needs in the community. Without discernable finances or indications for success, in one year they established a thrift shop, a food pantry, a large supply of cordwood and a list of skilled volunteers to help people in need with electrical, plumbing and carpentry issues. They became known as “The Needle Threaders,” demonstrating it is possible for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. It was a wonder for the giver and recipient.

Then there is The Peoples Church of Chicago, set in a neighborhood of single-room occupancy apartments. 50 worshippers, in a building that can hold over 2,000, applaud every time the offering is announced. The opportunity to give their nickels and quarters gives them dignity. They are filled with wonder that their small change can do so much for the impoverished neighborhood. Their cheerful applause is a wonder I still carry with me.

You see, a sense of wonder weakens the need to take sides. Wonder reveals our kinship with fragile people living in an unfathomable universe. There is no sense of wonder in systemic racism or political narratives that muddy the truth. There is no wonder in the struggle for living wages or confusing medical care. There is no wonder in coercive violence or military posturing. The sense of wonder comes from being attentive to the stars, the earth, and the people who are the progeny of the earth.

Valarie Kaur says it takes an act of will to awaken the “wonder” within. Choosing to free the wonder within is the beginning of seeing clearly the amazing world and universe of which we are a part. This “act of will” requires a long-term commitment. It is not a quick fix for our present troubles. It requires the patience of cosmic time.

Like the fire of stars taking billions of light-years to reach us, generations of growing wonder may light our way to a future time of empathy, equity, love, justice, peace and environmental health. We are the cosmic dust that can assure it happens – a wonder to behold!

(John Buttrick lives in Concord. He can be reached at

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