Where Art Thou, Wonder?
In less than two months, members of Harvard's class of 1999 will graduate, departing confident of our intellectual development and certainly value-added. But perhaps we will also be wonder-deprived.
Wonder, which ought to be thought of as a special state of mind, is devalued vernacular currency today. Wonder Woman, the WonderBra, Wonder Bread and our casual use of the term "wonderful" all desensitize us to wonder's power. Wonder doesn't receive justice in our modern parlance.
Wonder's entry in Webster's dictionary suggests its distinctive essence. It includes such words as awe, marvel, doubt, wistfulness, uncertainty, curiosity. The wonder of which I speak involves embrace of the tentative, or inspired exploration, or enchantment with the extraordinary.
Our sense of awe is perhaps strongest as young children, when nearly everything is exciting because it is new and bigger than we are. This sense subsides over time, and as we enter our teen years it becomes uncool to be impressed by anything. The uncertainty and tentativeness which underlie one's sense of wonder are still present, but they become masked, as teens embrace a disaffected, more-ambivalent-than-thou stance.
For skeptics who believe that this malaise among teens is universal, I offer contrary evidence in the form of Harvard's annual prefrosh weekend, which begins this Friday. When prefrosh arrive this weekend, all of us would do well to watch them carefully, and I do not mean with derision. Despite the prefrosh herd mentality that makes this weekend amusing for jaded upperclass students, it cannot be denied that a sense of uncertainty, excitement, and eagerness for what is to follow is most evident on the faces of those who are new to Harvard's campus. This fall, these students will arrive at Harvard with their sense of awe intact.
Cynical upperclass students will cry that these campus newcomers are merely naive to the ways of college life, but these students seem to have something which is long lost for most seniors--a healthy sense of wonder, that has grown in their souls and informs and animates their studies. If you examine the facial expression and attitude of your average senior, you may find that spark that they entered with has been snuffed out and has been replaced with blase indifference--in their academic lives, personal relationships and in their reaction to the world around them.
What happened between then and now to cause this transformation? Surely the emphasis our education places on achieving mastery of the unknown has something to do with it. In class we spend endless hours experimenting, developing models of analysis and working out complex equations, all in an effort to conquer the mysterious. In striving to catalog Shakespeare's sonnets, however, we soon forget to be stirred by them. I do not mean to suggest that we ought to cease our attempts at mastering the unknown, but I worry that our constant efforts to analyze and footnote may leave us numb to the beautiful and incapable of being moved by the magnificent. Just as an average teenager's desire to fit in leads him or her to squelch a sense of awe, the demands of our education may lead us to unlearn our natural sense of wonder.
It is not merely in our academic relationships that many seem to have lost our sense of wonder, but also in our personal lives and romantic relationships. In our interaction with others and the world around us, we too infrequently remember to appreciate what is special and extraordinary in these realms, perhaps because we are dissatisfied with anything less than an unrealizable, theoretical ideal. Romantic pursuits, in their early stages at least, are inherently a realm of uncertainty and exploration, yet we often try hard to mask our vulnerability and instead feign a calm suavity, or play hard to get. In striving for sophisticated execution of the "proper" romantic maneuvers, we miss out on the thrillingly uncertain elements of romance.
Instead of allowing our desire for mastery over the unknown encroach upon our sense of wonder, we ought to cultivate that sense of wonder, or at least refuse to unlearn it. There is a middle ground between rational analysis and naive innocence, and a robust sense of wonder ought to occupy that middle ground. If we forbid ourselves from feeling awe and excitement, we may do long-term damage and risk setting ourselves on a collision course with midlife crises.
To rediscover the sense of wonder in our souls, we need to first fully embrace an ethos of exploration. Resting on one's laurels contributes to the malaise we may feel at times, so instead we ought to be eager for novelty and uncertainty in our investigation of poetry, philosophy, literature, art, religion and even our own relationships. One cannot know when a sense of wonder and inspiration will engulf one while enjoying these pursuits, but the feeling will be of unmistakable ecstasy when it finally strikes.
William Butler Yeats feared a world in which "the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." Yeats would see it as tragic that pit-dwellers feel their suburban angst more passionately than Harvard students feel touched by art or philosophy. We can yet disprove Yeats' fears, so long as we remember that intellectual rigor and our desire for mastery in dealings with others need not preclude a healthy sense of intensity, longing, curiosity and wonder.
Adam R. Kovacevich '99 is a government concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.