We may never know for sure the origin and need for wonder in the human species, but we do know that it comes from a long way back. Jane Goodall was observing her chimpanzees in Gombe when she noticed a male chimp gesturing excitedly at a beautiful waterfall. He perched on a nearby rock and gaped at the flowing torrents of water for a good 10 minutes. Goodall and her team saw such responses on several occasions. She concluded that chimps have a sense of wonder, even speculating about a nascent form of spirituality in our simian cousins.
Wonder helps us connect
with that which is good. Wonder, like other emotions, evolved as a motivator to help us move towards satisfaction or benefit, and away from discomfort or harm. It balances with the other emotions. The classic example is of a bear, at least classic for those of us who lived in Alaska where all life can be distilled down to bear stories or metaphors. Wonder draws us to the woods in hopes of seeing a bear, and fear keeps our distance. Too much fear and we never go out, too much wonder and we are lunch. Wonder tempered with all our other emotional tools asks us to take a middle way - to get out and take some risks, but not overly so.
With wonder open, we connect, and life's possibilities open before us. Wonder helps us engage with the world to live in ways that integrate the reality that beauty is ever present. It also helps us face the also true, but harsher reality of harm, illness, death, disappointment, and massive suffering. Without wonder, we risk closing off to life, living more shallow lives, less intimacy and vibrancy.
One study showed how wonder opens us up. In the study, they took teenagers rafting. Aweek later they report being more engaged and curious about the world. Wonder also lifts depression, and in one study showed people to have less inflammation as measured in saliva. It helps our prosocial behaviors - we become more empathetic, humble, and generous. When we have more empathy, others resonate with us better and we have improved relationships. Our self identity moves from a separate self to being part of a whole, or the whole itself. By merely writing about awe, we become kinder, more compassionate, and this can extend to other species and the biotic community as a whole.
I lead Nurture Nature workshops and retreats where we look out how we have choice in moving towards that which is good for us and others. How can we nurture human nature so that we can nurture all of nature, I believe an important question in this time of climate change, loss of biodiversity, extinction, and factory farming. Two primary aspects of human nature we nurture is wonder and its partner, empathy. There are many ways to nurture wonder, as Rumi wrote: "Let the beauty we are be what we do, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
In Part 3 I will describe the first of four ways to nurture our wonder.