Tuesday, January 7, 2014
What a Wonderful World!
“Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive--it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there?” Lucy M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
My firstborn son has recently begun googling questions about nature and then asking me if I know the answers. He expects to trip me up, and when I do know the answers, he acts surprised. This morning, he asked if I know how snowflakes form, and I replied that they form around dust particles in the atmosphere.
How does mom know this?!?!
"So, why do they form the shapes they do, Mom?" Surely she won't know this!
"Well, Nick, because of the shape of the water molecules."
He accused me of learning these facts on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, which is where he found them. I had to explain that I'd known about snow since before the Internet.
He didn't believe me. Clearly I stay up at night mining the Internet for science facts to stay one step ahead of my son because I didn't learn a thing when I was his age and was as eager as he is to learn the secrets of the universe.
I completely understand his amazement at learning the wonders of nature. I also understand his desire to share what he as learned as if he were the first to know. When we realize how some aspect of nature works, we should be amazed and want to spread the word.
George and I model this amazement for the boys whenever we can. We take our children to museums and exhibits and zoos, and neither of us hides our enthusiasm for learning something new. We both read science books and magazines right in front of our children and discuss the things we learn. And there is so very much more to learn. The universe is a thrillingly wonderful place.
And there's the rub.
Socrates said, "The more I know, the more I know that I know nothing." Nick might be amazed that I know how snowflakes form, but as he grows in knowledge and maturity, I hope he learns to be even more amazed at how that tiny fact has enormous consequences for climatology...consequences I glimpse dimly but have never studied deeply enough to understand in any meaningful way.
Even if I studied climatology my whole life, I still wouldn't know all the answers...or even all the questions. There is always something more to know.
The more I know, the more I know that I know nothing. For some people, this awareness of the limits of our knowledge, of our eternal state of ignorance and ambiguity, is terrifying. Some people have to know the answers to all the questions, to limit and control knowledge the way Hitler tried to control Germany. What a dangerous thing!
I have studied with professors who "know" exactly what a piece of literature means. Those professors have solved the mystery of meaning, control that meaning, and flunk students who dare challenge their authority. They see Hamlet as a snowflake, a crystal of words formed around a dust mote, photographable and finite. Its importance stops there, at the limit of their knowledge and understanding. There can be nothing more to know, no further questions to ask.
I have read scientific breakthroughs--eggs are bad!--that a few years later other scientists failed to duplicate--eat all the eggs you want!
I have listened to talking heads on news media state categorically that such-and-such is true, only to have other talking heads say the opposite is true. Who, may I ask, is correct? Or, perhaps I should ask even better questions: what's in the middle between these two supposed truths? Might the truth reside there? Or might the truth be both, or neither?
I know people who "know" what the Bible means. They've solved the mystery of God, they "know" what God wants, they have created a God in their own image who agrees with them in all things. They reject the mystery in favor of certainty and control. Yet Scripture has its own version of Socrates' wisdom when it tells us to lean not on our own understanding but to trust God in all things.
Trust the Mystery.
When we demand answers be set in concrete, eternal and unchanging so we can know the truth, hold it in our hands, control it, we put ourselves in place of God...and we are dangerous fools.
We don't know squat, really, about climatology or the meaning of Hamlet or fiscal cliffs or the Bible or God. We see only dimly, through narrow eyes and with limited minds. But when we move through life in a state of wonder and amazement, of discovery and willingness to learn, of humility and grace, we are at our strongest and our best and our wisest.
We let ourselves be filled with wonder, and we grow in wisdom.
How do you cultivate your sense of wonder and amazement? Are there areas of your life that have ceased to be full of wonder? What can you do to revitalize your sense of wonder?