Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning 5773/2012
Will to Wonder
Last year from this bima, I addressed a letter to my not-yet-born son. As a not-yet-parent, I raised anxieties and questions about how to parent, how to navigate the advice of self-appointed gurus of good parenting, as well as our culture’s pressure to overextend and overachieve. I ended with these words to my son: “When the time comes, I think we’ll be learning from you how to be parents. I have a feeling you’ll be a good teacher.”
In these 9&1/2 months that Levi has been with us, he has already taught us a great deal, and not just about surviving on minimal sleep. I want to share with you this morning one of the lessons I’ve learned from him.
While spending hours and hours with an infant, one has many opportunities to observe and reflect on human nature and behavior. What I’ve noticed so far is that the baseline human occupation is to feed an innate capacity for curiosity and awe -- a kind of will to wonder -- that, I am quite sure, is actually a basic human need. Yes, other needs intervene -- sleeping, eating, excreting -- but when those are satisfied, what’s left to do is explore and be amazed.
Jerry Seinfeld once asked, in reference to NASA’s moon landing which included a lunar rover car:
What the [heck] were they doing with a car on the...Moon? You're on the Moon already! Isn't that far enough?! There was no more male idea in the history of the Universe, than “why don't we fly up to the Moon and drive around.” That is the essence of male thinking right there.
~Jerry Seinfeld,I’m Telling You for the Last Time, 1998
Seinfeld is mostly right. But it isn’t just a male idea, it’s an essentially human impulse -- to explore uncharted frontiers, to be amazed by new discoveries, to be in awe of creation.
This is encouraging. We often hear about human nature being basically about coveting, lying, possessing, abusing, and controlling. And maybe that comes later in a child’s development -- stay tuned for next year’s parenting sermon...
But it seems to me that this will to wonder is primary in our nature, and also uniquely human. At some point in our development, though, we -- that is, society, or adults -- we suppress the natural will to wonder. That suppression comes in various forms: Don’t touch! Keep out! Put that down! Turn that off!
Abraham Joshua Heschel diagnosed this spiritual ill in 1955:
As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.
~God in Search of Man, 46
However, as right as Heschel is, civilized society requires some management of our will to wonder, along with our other impulses, in order to function. So in the service of social acceptability, and good manners, and private property, we suppress it. In order to cultivate discipline, and a commitment to success, hard work, and responsibility, we suppress it. We create routines -- or have routines created for us -- which also suppress our capacity for wonder. By young adulthood, it takes a lot more to make us feel awe. Which means we experience it far less often. That’s partly because, as we get older, there are fewer new things. When you’re a baby, everything is new! Imagine having raspberries for the first time -- how red they look, how sublime they taste! The feel of the fruit and seed on your lips, and between your teeth, and on your tongue... (Levi loves raspberries.) How often are you amazed by a new taste?
But even more than the infrequency of new experiences, what raises our wonder threshold most, is lack of use. Like a muscle that atrophies from inactivity, our capacity for wonder weakens when we don’t exercise it. So how can we learn to exercise it more often, and more deeply?
Granted, we can’t just pretend we live in the Garden of Eden, with all our bodily needs taken care of, and all the time in the world to water our unquenchable curiosity.
Speaking of Eden, the story of Adam and Eve deciding against God’s will to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge rings even more true for me now, as a parent. Adam and Eve weren’t evil, they were just intensely curious! Of course they would try the one thing pointed out as off-limits -- that’s got to be the most interesting thing in the garden! That origin story is not about Original Sin -- it’s about Original Curiosity, the need to know, to learn, to explore, to be in awe of creation. And the banishment from Eden, with the punishment of labor -- in birth pains, for Eve, and in toiling for food, for Adam -- mirrors how we as an adult society suppress our children’s wonder by piling on duties, pressures, anxieties, rules, and expectations.
Like I said, we can’t completely wish away our responsibilities, and we wouldn’t want to if we could. So the question becomes, how do we continue cultivating our sense of wonder while still functioning in the world of rules and routines?
I have a few suggestions, first for how we think, and then for how we act.
We’ll have to start by reframing our thinking around the idea of routine and discipline. There’s a common fallacy that wonder and awe have to be spontaneous to be authentic. That’s the kind of thinking, incidentally, that leads “spiritual” people to avoid organized religion. In their view, religion imposes rules and routines on the free-flowing pursuit of transcendence and inspiration. That way of thinking works for infants, who find an opportunity to be amazed every time they blink. But for adults -- and here’s the paradigm shift that needs to happen -- discipline and routine are actually a necessary foundation for experiencing awe. We have to stretch and prep the canvas because we’re no longer the blank canvas of infancy.
Michael Chabon talked about this last April at an Aspen Writers Foundation event. He spoke about those moments of insight and inspiration when he feels not as if he’s writing, but as if he’s taking dictation. How do you create those moments? He asked. You can’t, directly. You never know when they’ll come. But you have to create the conditions without which they certainly won’t come. For him, that means having a discipline -- there’s that dreaded word again -- of daily writing. He sits down at the computer every day. But that’s not enough. He also unplugs from the internet. The constant pinging of the smartphone is a pretty sure guarantee that you will not transcend anything.
In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story about a dystopian socialist future, set in 2081. In the story, the State has taken equality to such a radical extreme, that there’s a Handicapper General to enforce it ruthlessly. In order to equalize people’s intelligence, those who are “above average” have to wear a radio ear piece at all times which buzzes every few minutes to prevent concentration and the formation of complex thoughts. What would Vonnegut think if he could see us, in 2012, dumbing ourselves down by being so attached to our constantly buzzing distraction devices!
Once we reorient our thinking, we can adjust how we act, to create more opportunities for wonder in our lives. Here are a few suggestions:
This is not a new recommendation. Even before there was an iPhone -- I know, it’s hard to believe there was a time before that -- there was Shabbat. A day of rest, a day to disconnect from the world of transaction, and to reconnect with the world of transcendence. Study after study on smartphones has found that constant access to information is changing our brain chemistry. If it’s not making us dumber, it’s at least making us more distracted, and less capable of deep conversation and thought. Even if it’s not Friday evening to Saturday, try a regular technology Shabbat in your own life.
This leads to my second suggestion: Develop a routine.
The irony of discipline is that it creates the backdrop for spontaneous insight and awe. I don’t mean this as a veiled soft sell to come to services more often, although that works for some, and might work for you. What I mean is to build into your schedule, along with all the meetings, appointments, ball games, and phone calls, a time for the sacred. If that word turns you off, then try a different one -- special, separate. Make that time noticeably different, either by refraining from the usual, or by engaging in activities that set it apart.
My third suggestion: Develop the right tools.
We are so focused on efficiency and the bottom line -- and we are generally good at that -- that we lose sight of the awe-inspiring. There are many ways to do this:
Familiarize yourself with Jewish prayer, and pray on your own or with community on a regular basis. Go to yoga. Meditate. Make reading part of your routine. Get outdoors more often. (Of course, if you’re in Aspen, you’re probably the choir I’m preaching to on that one.) Try something new every week, or month.
These can be solitary or relationship-building activities. The important thing is that they be scheduled activities, valued and prioritized, and not dismissed because we’re resigned to being “too busy.” Another irony: When we lay this groundwork for experiencing wonder, then even in ordinary moments, in the totally mundane everydayness of our lives, the sense of awe that we’ve cultivated has the potential to light up and fill us with wonder.
I actually think the world would be a better place if more of us cultivated our capacity for wonder. We’d be more at peace with ourselves, and more in touch with each other. We would also be better able to address the challenges in our lives and in the broader world from a place of resoluteness and wholeness, instead of the constant state of partial attention in which we live -- or, not live so much as get by.
Reishit chochma yir’at Adonai / “The beginning of wisdom is awe of the Eternal,” says Psalm 111 (v. 10). We are most in touch with ourselves, and most aware of our place in the universe -- we are most fully human! -- when we tap into our primal need to feel awe, to experience wonder, to marvel at the miracles in every moment, and at the most awesome gift of all, that of simply being alive.
If all else fails, then spend some time with an infant in this new year. It may be exhausting, but if you pay attention, it will teach you the wisdom of Einstein, who said, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; or you can live as if everything is a miracle.”
May 5773 find us all more aware of the miracles unfolding all around us, and more alive.