A little over a year ago I listened to a podcast on ArtOfManliness.com entitled The Power Of Wonder wherein Brett McKay interviewed the author of a book (Robert Fuller) on the topic of Wonder. It was particularly interesting since this topic fascinates and inspires me and it’s difficult to find references of any kind on the subject. (Not to mention that it’s the titled-focus of this web site.) So after listening to the podcast I ordered the book.
The formal book title is: Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality. The author’s professional vitae reflects his major focus on religion – which the book did indeed address. However, I’m extremely appreciative of the fact that he was able to treat this subject with a broader secular approach it so deserves.
“Wonder is what sets us apart from other life forms. No other species wonders about the meaning of existence or the complexity of the universe or themselves.”
– Herbert W. Boyer
What is Wonder?
At the time of the publication of the book (2006) the Oxford English Dictionary defined wonder as:
The emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected.
A feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar.
A working definition noted within the book is:
The feeling state that accompanies the total organism’s response to something novel and unexpected (especially those things that strike us as especially powerful, real, true and/or beautiful.)
Throughout the book the author mentions many attributes of wonder. The main components of wonder include:
Mr. Fuller notes that in searching the indices of his personal library of psychology books published in the last 100 years, he could not find a single mention of “wonder.” It’s a rare emotion that is difficult to reproduce in a laboratory environment, so it’s rather ignored.
Over and over in the book, and even the podcast, he continually alludes to wonder being driven by powerful experiences of Beauty, Vitality and Truth. He also mentions Beauty, Order and Vitality although I’m not exactly clear what he means by “order.” Perhaps he means order and harmony in the universe and nature? I really like this reference to powerful experiences of Beauty, Vitality and Truth. It resonates with me. 🙂
What things typically produce wonder? Nature, Beauty, Music, Art, Science, Discovery, People, Love, Life, Mathematics, Geometry, Religion and Metaphysical Mysteries.
I think another significant cause of wonder is also Knowledge Adventuring. Researching, questioning and uncovering heretofore little-known facts that leap out at you; smacking you in the face with a realization of awe and wonder about the ramifications and truth of that knowledge. As the author states, powerful displays of Truth can be a cause of wonder.
Wonder vs. Awe vs. Curiosity vs. Interest
An interesting element of the book were many excerpts from various sources and the author’s own thoughts to differentiate between various emotions that are easily confused with, or closely related to, wonder.
Awe – Actually….almost every mention of awe in the book is always listed in conjunction with wonder….. i.e. “awe and wonder.” As already admitted, wonder is rarely the subject of written psychology texts, but apparently awe is even less defined – at least when it comes to distinguishing it from wonder. It was not clear in the book as to the difference. When awe was mentioned the typical attributes were: the presence of God; a religious experience; dread; terror; intimidation; vastness of the universe and life; the unknown and maybe unknowable. In one instance, a source of his states that “wonder generates awe.” Interesting. Perhaps it should be that awe generates wonder?
Curiosity – Mr. Fuller spends some time discussing curiosity and how this is a more active emotion than wonder (which is said to be passive). Curiosity is summarized as an attempt to analyze, understand and even manipulate the events and objects of our environment. It involves inquiries into the causal workings of physical reality.
Wonder – As opposed to curiosity wonder is a more passive emotion. It has more to do with cognitive reflection and contemplation about unexpected perceptions. Reflecting on how the various parts relate to a greater whole. It induces receptivity and openness and causes us to consider life and its meaning from broader perspectives. How do we relate to the world? How do we relate to others? What is possible? Is there a purpose in the universe? Where does existence come from? Like interest, it drives long-term constructive and creative endeavors. It has intrinsic value to the individual. Wonder causes us to philosophize.
Interest – How is interest different than curiosity and wonder? The author and his referenced sources aren’t particularly clear about this. On the one hand he says that, like wonder, heightened interest “animates and enlivens the mind” and lures us into “constructive and creative” engagement with our surroundings. It “focuses attention” and readies us for “engagement and interaction.” It’s closest to wonder in terms of its effect on motivation. However, as much as he relates it to wonder, it sounds like it’s more active than wonder – akin to the active emotion of curiosity rather than passive wonder.
I think all these positive emotions are beneficial to us. It’s quite difficult to split hairs about the subtle differences and nuances among the four. And to the non-academician – – does such bifurcation really matter?
Awe, wonder, curiosity, interest . . . . the important aspect to register in our lives is the tremendous effect these have to enrich us SO far beyond the mundane. What exactly are the benefits and effects of wonder and its related emotions?
Benefits and Effects of Wonder on Your Life
Without a doubt these incredible emotions bring enriching positives to the lives of anyone who will entertain them. The book has continual and profuse references to the benefits of experiencing wonder in our life. It . . .
- enriches our existence
- produces personal fulfillment
- stimulates growth
- excites our imagination
- enhances our seeking
- invigorates us
- provides a fresh approach to life
- frees us of environmental conditioning
- enables our self-direction
- imbues the world with an alluring quality
- engages us in self-examination
- produces a mindful awareness of the world
- awakens our higher-order thought
- initiates abstract thinking
- animates and enlivens the mind and body
- induces us to pause, admire, and open our hearts and minds
- kindles a reverence for life
Amazing. Yet, the vast majority of humanity has no concept of wonder or its benefits. They meander through life impressed by nothing.
“And thus although you can surely go through life without a developed sense of wonder, it is equally true that a life shaped by wonder is attuned to the widest possible world of personal fulfillment.”
– Robert Fuller
Religion vs Spirituality
While Mr. Fuller comes from an academic role focused on religion – as I mentioned – he does a good job of sharing wonder in relation to both its religious and secular aspect.
One area where I cannot agree with Mr. Fuller is his claim that religious rituals and doctrines evoke wonder in people. I can understand his claim (since I presume he has a lifetime of indoctrination via many years of formal religious experience) . . . . however, even before I was a heretic, I did not find doctrine and ritual fascinating or wonderful in any way. Years of being a Catholic, or later, a born-again Christian did not help this claim. Unless one is ready to abandon every filament of their rational being, rituals overtly come across as inane, meaningless and manipulative; the antithesis to wonder.
As a student in Catholic elementary school I thought First Communion, Confirmation and May Procession rituals all certainly interesting, but even then, they couldn’t hold a candle to to the magic of hiking along the creek in the woods with my father. Nature rules over doctrine. Period.
Even outside of formal religion, rituals and doctrine of fraternal organizations such as Freemasonry (I was a member for a few years) are equally inane and meaningless. I could not perceive benefits or wonder of any kind beyond the fact that I was wasting valuable hours of my life experiencing silly play-acting that was somehow supposed to be mysterious and special to its participants, but which lost its true esoteric meaning and importance long, long ago.
One area I do agree is his references to various people’s connection with spirituality as it relates to nature. Somewhere in the book he mentions it as “religious naturalism.” I think a better term would be “spiritual naturalism.” From my perspective the only god I ever see (if there is one) is a deistic god of nature – – nature as god.
I’ve experienced numerous occasions where I was brought to disbelief, awe, wonder and tears of joy by the sheer majesty and mystery of nature…..NEVER by anything related to orthodox religion.
Can Man-made Objects Cause Wonder?
Another area where I find disagreement with the author is his claim that wonder is less likely to be caused by human-made artifacts.
For anyone with even a crude understanding and appreciation of engineering and construction capabilities, there’s a myriad of man-made structures that simply leaves a viewer with slack-jawed awe and wonder. From monstrous bridges, buildings, palaces, cathedrals, ships, statues, and huge sculptures a viewer is left dumb-struck as to how such edifices and artistic expression could possibly have been erected using the technology of the day.
The most incredible examples of this mind-blowing awe and wonder in human achievement are the innumerable ancient structures around the world built with megalithic blocks of stone. Incredible behemoth stones were quarried, lifted, transported, lifted again, finished and fitted with space-age precision – supposedly with crude tools that could not have accomplished the task at hand. Unless you possess at least a basic understanding of engineering you wouldn’t give these structures a second thought. But if you do have the capacity to see the engineering impossibilities staring you in the face, you can’t help but stand in utter disbelief and awe at the accomplishments of these ancient civilizations.
This is an example of the benefit of “knowledge adventuring” wherein we dig, educate and discover facts not previously known or admitted within the paradigms of orthodox historians.
In a similar vein, one has to simply visit the incredible structures of castles, palaces and cathedrals of Europe to be instantly in awe at the fantastic engineering, art and architecture employed. You can stand in these edifices and simply be blown away by the sheer size and complexity of their structure and artistry. How did they accomplish it? How did they cut, move and precisely fit these stones several hundred feet in the air when modern cranes did not exist? It’s absolutely amazing to wonder and admire these accomplishments.
Human-made artifacts aren’t likely to produce wonder? Think again.
Wonder Generates Awe?
As noted above, Mr. Fuller’s book attempts to differentiate between awe and wonder, and states at one point that “wonder generates awe.” I cannot agree. In fact, it should be just the opposite. Awe generates wonder. One follows from the other; clear and simple.
When we’re exposed to a gorgeous vista, the limitlessness of the cosmos, the incredible beauty of the world around us, the mind-blowing engineering involved in constructing the world’s most impressive edifices . . . we can’t help but be dumb-struck with awe. . . .gobsmacked by the object and beauty before us.
As I see it, these emotions progress and are triggered thus:
Awe = Gobsmacked by an experience or object.
Wonder = Reflection on the gobsmacked awe, beauty and impressiveness of what we just experienced. Philosophizing on the larger questions of how and why these incredible things are even in existence. How did they come to be?
Curiosity & Interest = The actions we take as a result of the gob-smacked awe and its resulting wonder that drives us to learn, discover, understand, assimilate and integrate the mysteries of these events and objects into our lives.
“Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.”
– Rachel Carson
I think an interesting study (if it could even be done) is whether people who lack a sense of wonder about the world can possibly re-develop that sense. I’m not sure. We lose much of our wonder and our senses are dulled into the mundane by years of schooling, work and cultural conditioning.
The only hope, perhaps, would be for individuals to step back away from the cultural paradigms and social conditioning and begin asking questions about those “givens.” To be Walking Question Marks. To dig, discover, appreciate and enculture an open and awakened mind (Knowledge Adventuring). As a natural progression during this pulling away from the normal and mundane, a person will also gradually stop taking beauty, life and truth for granted. Then wonder can take hold again.
I encourage anyone to wonder about the world all around you. Pursue beauty, life and truth. Enrich your lives with the benefits produced by a sense of wonder.
“In wonder you realize that this is it. You have the opportunity to swim through the river of life rather than just float on it, to own your life rather than be owned by it”
– Juan De Pascuale
- Robert C. Fuller, Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006)
- Podcast #271: The Power of Wonder, ArtOfManliness.com
- Robert Fuller, M.A., B.A., Ph.D., Bradley University