I had been “doing” today, and when I got home there were still things I needed to be “doing.” Finally, there was time to sit and contemplate. All that I could accomplish (OK, read that as WOULD accomplish) had either been done or passed onto that list of to do later. I was looking up something on-line, and instead found an amazing article titled “A Wonder-full Life” by Juan De Pascuale: (edited/abbreviated, full link below)
All of us are a little like Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels– sailing the sea of time in our fragile bodies, repeatedly finding ourselves shipwrecked on our voyage to the Unknown. In this parable of the human condition, Gulliver’s accidental voyages take him to strange worlds inhabited by odd creatures. Perhaps most bizarre is Laputa, the island world that floats like a Zeppelin in the sky high above the ground.
The Laputans who inhabit this island have one eye permanently turned inward as though in literal introspection, while the other is turned upward as though in permanent contemplation of the stars. They worship the abstract sciences and have a passion for theoretical reflection; they are devoted to the study of mathematics, music theory and astronomy.
(additional note:The population of the island mainly consisted of educated people, who are fond of mathematics, astronomy, music and technology, but fail to make practical use of their knowledge (the rest are their servants). They had mastered magnetic levitation and discovered the two moons of Mars, but couldn’t construct well-designed clothing or buildings – reason for this being that measurements are taken with instruments such as quadrants and a compass rather than with tapes.)
The cerebral Laputans are masters of a wide array of esoteric arts and sciences that gives them the ability to control the land below and hold subject the ordinary earthly citizens. However, they have difficulty in social situations. When they go out into society, they must be accompanied by a servant carrying a stick to bash the Laputans on the head so that they don’t drift off into flights of absentminded speculation, ignoring the person in front of them.
What is truly astonishing, however, is not the mystery of life, that some things move and other things don’t, that in every life’s voyage there are shipwrecks, that you never know what tomorrow will bring …
These mysteries are merely the tip of the metaphysical iceberg hiding beneath our everyday concerns. What is truly amazing is the fact that there is anything at all.
Being itself — to be! — is the most uncanny datum of our experience, and yet it simply stands for everything. It is this very act of writing, the air we breathe, the space we move through and this time that we are sharing. It is here, there, all around us, between us, it is us. It is now. From… to the thoughts in your mind, to the most distant galaxy: All this, the world itself, is, and it is wondrous that it is. And yet we tend to lose sight of the wonder of it all in the midst of it all.
It is our capacity to wonder at the mystery of being that makes us human and separates us from the rest of creation. To wonder about being is like having the top of your head removed and feeling with your naked brain the icy cool presence and unfathomableness of everything.
When you fall into wonder only one sentence forms on your lips: Why is there anything at all and not, rather, nothing? I am not seeking a “cause” or a general explanation of what is, which might or might not be provided by philosophy, religion or science. I am, rather, acknowledging a deepening experience of everything around me. Prior to the experience of wonder, I now realize, I took the full weight of existence for granted, as most people do most of the time.
You cannot, however, deliberately choose to wonder. You can only ready yourself for it. Wonder always happens as though from the outside in. One slides into wonder, is surprised by wonder, is overtaken by wonder; but one cannot will to wonder. And all of this happens under the most ordinary of circumstances. Maybe it has already happened to you. Maybe you have already fallen into wonder. Or maybe you have been touched by wonder but turned away.
Maybe you have had the experience, as I have, of awakening in your familiar bed only to find it inexplicably alien, and not because of what you drank or took the night before. A morning when, for reasons unknown, you woke up before the alarm rang and, somewhere between a dream state and clearly felt reality, found yourself bathed in astonishment at your mere being. At the fact that you are at all, let alone here, now, in this particular place at this particular time in this familiar yet so strange bed of yours. A moment when everything you cast your eyes upon– your shoes on the floor, the plant on the windowsill, the pile of books on the desk — fills you with a mixture of awe and anxiety as you let yourself admit to yourself that the mystery of life, of being itself, is so overwhelmingly shocking that it leaves you powerless and speechless.
Many of us, however, have had …moments of realization of what it is and means to be. If you have, then you know that no amount of description can capture the actually lived felt-sense of being in awe of being. You also know with certainty that it changes you forever. You know that you have rubbed up against the very edge. There is nothing that could be further or deeper.
No one knows what being is or why it is. Not Plato or Aristotle or the Buddha or Einstein. There is no knowing the what or the why of what is. There is only the understanding of life that is acquired through the asking in the state of wonder. But that’s enough. And it better well be because that’s all there is for us mere mortals.
The experience of wonder brings the world into relief and makes a person take life seriously. 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 life. If attended to, the experience of wonder gives birth to self-examination and to a mindful awareness of the world. In time you come to know yourself as you have been and are — and this gives you the possibility of choosing how to be. Through the experience of wonder we become true individuals and true citizens of the universe.
Most people, however, live out their lives unaware of the mystery of existence. Everyday routines of work and entertainment keep them from seeing the world and themselves in the light of wonder. They drift quietly through life like the autumn leaves that float on the surface of a river, barely noticing that they are adrift even as their place in the river of time empties into the ocean of death. This is the most common kind of life, literature and art tell us. It’s the life of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, Arthur Miller’s Willy Lohman, W.H. Auden’s Unknown Citizen and Kierkegaard’s aesthete. The average life of the average person seeks to become just that, average — to be “just like everyone else.”
But why do people drift through life like dead leaves? The answer is simple: Drifting is easy and has obvious advantages visible to everyone, while the advantages of letting wonder teach you to swim through life are known only to those who actually do it. Yes, drifting can lead to worldly success, but it can cost you the only thing in life that you can truly call your own — your self. And therein lies the tragedy.
What good is it to know the world but not to know yourself — to be the scientist who succeeds in mapping the 30,000 genes of the human genetic code and thereby hold the biological secrets of all of mankind in the palm of your hand, but not to know the very person who holds this knowledge in his hand?
What good is it to find a high paying job, fit well into the community, be well-liked and thereby succeed in “living well” but, for a lack of time or attention, fail to succeed in dying well?
You cannot will yourself to wonder any more than you can will yourself to love, but you can prepare yourself for it just as you can for love. You can choose to move slowly through this fast life mindful of your experiences. You can strip down to your bare self and press up against what is.
That is where I want to be, how I want to be. To be completely open to wonder (remember child-like enthusiasm) and the sheer wonder and joy of living. However, I don’t want someone to have to bash me in the head to bring me “back to earth.”
–laputa picture from http://www.martiniere.com/imagepages/gulliver13.htm
–photo of ice ribbon by Andy Goldsworthy
–picture 8 courtesy of “eternal”
–boy on sidewalk – “Sidewalk Circus” by Paul Fleishman and Kevin Hawkes