One day a couple of years ago, I was spending a day doing one of my favorite things: walking along a remote creek in western Indiana, near the Fall Creek Gorge. It was this creek, the same one I wrote about here.

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There is, along this creek, a spot where butterflies puddle. “Puddling” is when butterflies gather on wet sand, or something dead and rotting, or some kind of animal scat, and slurp up the moisture and minerals they find there. I have walked to this spot over and over again, and there has never been a time — at least in summer — when butterflies were not present.

The first time I stumbled onto this place, I noticed an enormous Eastern swallowtail perched on the wet sand on the edge of the creek. And then I noticed another. And another. And still another. And suddenly it became clear that I had wandered into a cloud of fluttering swallowtails, all taking their turns on the wet sand. I looked around. The sun shone through the trees and bounced off the canyon walls, lighting the butterflies’ wings into a kind of humming yellow glow, as they zinged past my face, danced around my hair, and swooped in to take their turn on the sand, sending other swallowtails up into orbit around my head.

Meanwhile, I had stopped cold, and time had stopped too. On some level, I recognized the moment for what it was: an encounter with the greatest of human emotions, a moment of wonder. “Oh!” I thought. “This is it!” But then I let the thought go, let it fly into the breeze, and just joined the butterflies. It may have been five minutes or it may have been an hour. I really have no idea.

Recently, I saw someone, probably on social media, ask the question: What is your favorite emotion? I saw a lot of “joy”, “happiness”, and “love” in the responses. All strong contenders, and certainly in my top five choices.

But nothing else comes close to awe.  Wonder and awe are the mechanisms that propel us to transcendence, that generate the other emotions in the longer term. Scientists are interested in it now, too, working to identify it, examine its contours, and determine its connections to other emotions and its impact on the human condition. One article confirms my suspicion that awe makes time screech to a halt. The same piece notes that among the range of human feelings, “awe occupies unique standing as an emotion rooted in joy, but tinged with that Kierkegaardian fear and trembling.”

Maybe. For some of us, the Kierkegaardian fear and trembling are part of the payoff. But whatever the exact contours of it, wonder is a state in which the mystical has achieved a complete occupation of our deepest selves. We have been overcome by the forces of the whole shebang, of the universe. It has, for the moment, harnessed us completely.

Wonder and awe, though, are not universally available experiences. Rachel Carson, in The Sense of Wonder, tells us that a capacity for wonder is wired into us all, but it’s often suppressed as we grow.  About twenty years ago, I walked out of my home with a house guest, a busy investment banker, as he took his leave. It was October, and the trees were softly aglow in the morning overcast, their vibrant colors piercing the morning mist. I exclaimed over their beauty, and asked him if the colors were at their peak at his home. “I don’t know,” he said dismissively. “I never notice things like that.”

To experience wonder requires a deliberate surrender that some just can’t allow.  When the universe offers us an invitation to encounter the transcendent, an implied condition is that we are not in the driver’s seat. When we are focused on ourselves, our imagined superiority, or our delusion that we have control, we can’t accept the invitation.

But it’s also difficult when you’re hungry, frightened, pressured, or depressed. This is basic Maslow; some needs come before others. We must eat, for example, simply to exist, and if we’re struggling to do that, then all of our self must be dedicated to the task. Or as one writer put it, when summarizing recent research, “[w]e now understand that the pressure of scarcity literally taxes our brains; our mind’s field of vision narrows, and the beauty of the world is very often blocked from view….in short, wonder is very often a privilege for those who have their basic survival and relational needs met.”

Put another way, had I been looking desperately for food along that creek, I wouldn’t have given the butterflies a second glance. But for those of us who have dragged ourselves to the top of Maslow’s pyramid, or were born there, it’s much easier to be open to it.

It’s important to me to be keenly aware, when I write as I do about the experience of wonder, that it’s as much a luxury as my fully-stocked refrigerator, and a house on which the utilities have been easily paid. For some of us, existence requires a constant focus and hypervigilance; there is nothing left for butterflies, or colorful autumn mornings. I know this, because I haven’t always been able to access the wondrous myself. But when I can, it is a matter of gratitude, and part of what underlies my beliefs about justice and equality. Wonder should be a universally available experience. And to write about it as if it is universal would be the antithesis of what underlies it; wonder and awe are about extending out from ourselves, and connecting to something larger, not assuming everyone else has the same opportunities we do.

So we experience it, and we write about it, and we hope to instill an ethic of wonder. Tap into it, if you can. And then offer a hand so someone else can.

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15 thoughts on “An ethic of wonder

  1. What a wonderful article. I admire your erudition while envying your openness to wonder and awe – not to mention coveting your way with words!
    I love how you encourage writers to open people’s eyes to wonder, suggesting that it’s ethically important to do so.

  2. I don’t know whether I lost the ability to wonder or whether I never had it. But I know that when I got into photography about ten years ago, I started seeing things I never saw before. Things that were always all around me, but that I didn’t know how to notice. Like the delicious evening light we’ve had all through this September.

    1. Photographer’s eye, yes. I think that’s a subspecies of awe, or at least it can lead to it. Because it makes you NOTICE things. But I do think wonder is a state of surrender in many ways. And I wasn’t able to experience it completely until the last 7 or 8 years. I suppose people who meditate have similar experiences, without the precipitating butterflies or other causes. It’s an elusive thing to describe.

      1. And now I have the song “Elusive Butterfly” playing on repeat in my head!

        I think the point I didn’t make was that without photography I’m not sure I would have ever been open to wonder. I do get it from time to time now. I can’t access it any time I want it — I don’t think any of us can. I just have to be able to notice those moments and be able to shift my mind into being present enough to experience it. And yes, it is a privilege.

      2. I can’t access the whole-hog experience whenever I want, either. That takes serendipity, as Dave Ply mentions in this thread. And when it comes down to it, pretty much all of my travels are about putting myself into place for the whole-hog experience. But these days, I’m lucky enough to catch a whiff of it in lots of places. And I think you’re right. Learning to see like a photographer softens you up for it.

  3. You’ve expressed it beautifully. I think one of the things that make those moments of awe so special is that they are often serendipitous – unplanned moments of immersion and joy.

  4. Jennifer, just wanted to thank you for this post. It’s prompted a fair bit of thinking, appreciation, and then writing for me, around why I photograph and what it brings me.

    Thank you again.

    Dan

  5. Lovely post, thanks. I think that familiarity has something to do with Wonder and Awe as well as lack-of pressure from scarcity. Having moved from the UK to the US I am often look in wonder at things that are commonplace here but in the UK either don’t exist or are different somehow.
    Here on my drive home everyday I have the vision of the most wonderful mountains bathed in golden light and I am often distracted from driving as I enjoy the view (also working out where I could stand to capture it). The sight of small lizards by the side of the path also stops me in my tracks.
    These are things that others around me seem not to notice and it is only when I point something like this out to my Fiancee that she acknowledges them and smiles at me as if I were a child.
    And I think it is in that child in us where the wonder and awe reside and certain circumstances mean that child is more likely to surface and appreciate the sights, sounds and smells around us.

    1. I think you make an excellent point! When things are so different, when we are immersed in the *other*, then it’s so much easier to catch the wave of awe. I think it’s important, then, to try always to experience new things. Insightful comment. Thank you!

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