Once the dinner table was cleared and the coffee served, on occasion my aunt would ask me to remind her what were my plans after graduation.
“New York,” I’d begin, “I plan to–”
“Ah, New York.” It was exactly the opening she needed. “To be young and in New York! Did I ever tell you about the time when I just had the worst day of my life!” Of course she had. It was her favorite story to tell and one of my favorites, too.
The way it goes, it was a sticky summer in the city in the 1980s. She had been dumped the night before and fired that next day. She was heading to her “miserable little walk-up” in the Village when, after rooting around in her pocketbook, she discovered she was down to her last ten bucks.
Standing in front of her corner deli, she contemplated her options: a predictable cold deli sandwich alone in her dim apartment on a Friday night or…
…blowing all the money she had in the world on a pretty bouquet of flowers because to hell with it all!
Decision made, she leaned over to pluck out a tight bunch of pink roses when a tall, handsome French man made to grab the same ones. They got to chatting as she explained that these pink roses were so very important to her and the only thing that could salvage this wretched day and could he see his way to buying a different bunch?
He could not. He ended up buying those flowers and another dozen for his friend and when he handed her the first bunch with a cheeky grin, because she liked art she did mention, he asked if she would be interested in joining him around the corner to a gallery opening?
From there, she tells a sanitized version of the night, censored for my sensitive ears. In my mind, they jetted from downtown to uptown and back again in a wild, glamorous escalating party montage stitched from movies like Bright Lights, Big City, Working Girl, and The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. (20th Century Fox)
I’d swear her story was something out of a movie, pure fantasy for fun, if it weren’t for the adoring look she’d share with my uncle after the telling of it. It happened, this wonderful night, and the proof was in her handsome French man’s smile.
What if she had bought the practical sandwich instead? Would she have forever blown the chance to live and tell her favorite after-dinner story? Oh, and never have met the love of her life? Was it pure luck or did free will place my aunt and uncle at the crossroads of chance and choice, changing their lives forever?
At the crossroads between choice and chance lives wonder.
The concept of wonder is likely as old as human history itself, the etymological roots in Old Norse, Old English, Gothic and German. It is a natural response to the mystery and beauty of the world around us, an illuminating physiological experience of the whole body and brain. Wonder exists in a place where we choose to allow ourselves to be openly amazed by the unexpected, the beautiful, or the utterly astonishing.
Wonder isn’t just something great – it can inspire a sense of admiration, curiosity, or reverence. It can be a response to a natural wonder like a majestic waterfall or an immense mountain range, an overwhelming work of art or music, or a small act of kindness or modest heroism. Wonder is a fascinating and multifaceted concept that encompasses both the emotional and cognitive responses to the world around us.
But back to those Old Norse folks: did they find undr with every aurora borealis? Probably not. Sure, the first few times in their lives, those crazy lights slicking through the sky were cool AF! After a couple dozen times? Old news. For a former Floridian (like myself) it would probably elicit the same reaction as a really dope sunset over the Naples Pier. The sense of wonder would’ve dissipated, even disappeared. It’s pretty, sure, but it’s pretty common, too.
Wonder is one of those words, like ‘fantastic’ and ‘great’, that has lost a lot of its original luster. It’s carted out with white rabbits at tea parties, strong fictional female heroes, and motivational posters of very high mountains or very steep cliffs. It’s become shorthand for something better than usual, different from quotidian, a little weird, but in a totally palatable way – the kind that sells luxury cars, bespoke bedding, and telecoms and home appliances, too.
Where did wonder go?
Let’s be frank – when, as a society, we have been through it, it is pretty challenging to be amazed by anything anymore. All told, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: it's our body’s go-to way of keeping us safe in a world of overwhelm. But without a proper release valve, that constant pressure to keep us safe can become unhealthy quickly.
It’s commonly accepted that yes, we move through life fast. We’re stressed, we’re tired, and we definitely forget to be amazed. In our fast-paced world, where the answer to nearly every conceivable question is a finger tap away, where is the room for wonder? Is there any wonder left in the world? What’s a world like without wonder?
Sounds like it’s time for a serious recalibration.
So, how do we slow down and smell the proverbial roses, get some of that “wonder”? Unfortunately, wonder isn’t collectible or consumable. It’s not “doable” either. You can’t add it to the chore chart or set an iCal reminder.
Wonder is platform agnostic.
Wonder is in the eye of the beholder. Let me explain. Mount Everest is widely considered to be the most amazing natural wonder in the world. Tens of thousands of visitors flock to it annually just to stand in its shadow, and people literally die trying to summit its peak. It must snatch breaths and inspire bone-vibrating awe – but from the images I’ve seen? Eh. Sure it’s pretty and big, super big in fact, but that sense of wonder just isn’t translating through the countless photos and hours of documentaries I’ve clocked on this big rock.
But of course a photo or video can’t inspire wonder!
Can’t it? Because who among us hasn’t been brought to our emotional knees after watching a video of a whale thanking a sailor after getting rescued from a discarded net? Or a photo of a chicken and a house cat bedding down with a nest of chicks? Or when the evening news shows footage of elementary school students walking out en masse to protest school shootings?
Wonder is possible anywhere, at any time, when you decide to be vulnerable and available to experience the unexpected.
Wonder is infinite – there’s no pie to divide up and share because there is always pie. Endless pie! You can sit under a starry arctic sky or a sun-warmed beach every day of every year and choose wonder. You can resign yourself to another turkey sandwich alone or decide to do something different, to choose to shift your perspective a little and open yourself up to experience wonder for the first time or all over again. Wonder is just there, waiting for you.
A very practical list to increase demonstrably your opportunities to experience wonder
Want to start cultivating a sense of wonder in your world? Need a little inspo?
First, remember this one, very crucial thing: be open. Be vulnerable. Be weird, all the way, unpalatable weird. Be amazed you’re alive and that you get to experience all this! Take a beat and really enjoy it…and mean it!
Take a walk in the park, hike in the woods, or visit a botanical garden. Being surrounded by the beauty of nature can inspire feelings of awe and wonder.
Be curious about the world around you. Ask questions and seek answers. Become the “didja know?” friend.
Really sit in the moment and focus on your senses. Get comfy (get a little blankie if you like) and notice the sights, sounds, smells, and textures around you.
Do something totally new. Take yourself out on a date to the local museum, park, or cinema. Try a new restaurant alone or invite a possible new friend for coffee.
Spend time with people who inspire you, engage in meaningful conversations and share your experiences and perspectives. Email or DM your favorite writer, creator, or podcaster – be open to connecting with your fellow humans.