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"Nothing But the Mystery: Wonder, Meaning and the Liberal Arts" by Tracy Knight
(The 4th Annual College of Arts and Sciences John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture, October 4, 2006)
Thank you and good evening. I appreciate your kind words, Dr. Hallwas. I am doubly pleased to have this opportunity tonight because this event carries your name. You are a treasure, not only for WIU but also for the entire region and all of your grateful readers, of which I am one. Thanks to President Goldfarb and Provost Rollo for their presence this evening. I also want to thank Dean Inessa Levi and the Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture Committee, including Sue Martinelli-Fernandez, Jeff Dodd and especially John Simmons for their assistance and support. Finally, thanks to those generous souls—John, Al and Sharon—who offered helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this lecture. Were it not for them, this may well have been a three-hour talk; I shall pass along your gratitude.
In all the ways that count, I am a product of western Illinois and Western Illinois University. Born and raised in Carthage, a mere twenty-five miles from where I now stand, I grew up as part of a wonderful family. There are times I think that my entire childhood could have been filmed and released as an extended episode of Leave It to Beaver, with perhaps a few frames from Woodstock spliced in for texture. The relative safety and stability and quiet provided by a life in western Illinois, I think, grants a foundation for wondering, exploring, and reflecting. At its best, western Illinois bestows the necessary time and space.
Before pursuing my doctorate, I earned by Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at WIU and, although it had not been part of my life plan, I cheerfully returned to join the psychology department five years ago. Prior to my return, I worked as a clinical psychologist in west-central Illinois, including nearly twenty precious years as a member of the Horizons Medical Group in Carthage. The late Dr. James Coeur, our leader, was a compelling example of a sadly dying breed—the wise country doctor—and used to introduce me to patients he wanted me to see by reassuring them, “This is Doctor Knight. He’s a psychologist, but he’s not crazy.” It’s true: Being a psychologist forces one to carry, Sisyphus-like, the belief that a significant part of the population assumes you to be mentally unbalanced. Of course, such an assumption has its advantages: One is permitted a certain latitude in one’s thoughts and behavior.
You, the audience, also reap an advantage. As a clinical psychologist, I typically stop speaking after fifty minutes, although if my words prove therapeutic you may well find a bill taped to the bottom of your chair following tonight’s lecture.
One day this past summer I stumbled across a passage from philosopher Karl Popper that helped me put tonight’s lecture into perspective. He wrote, “It is important never to forget our ignorance. We should therefore never pretend to know anything, and we should never use big words.” (1992, p. 86). When I read that passage, I thought, “Boy, my job just became easier.” I therefore plan to speak humbly tonight, with no pretension and a minimum of unnecessary big words. I will not profess a wisdom I do not possess. Instead, I will wonder aloud and avoid pat answers, trusting that a notion or two I present will spark ideas and motivations in you. I hope this evening we are spending together can function as an oasis of sorts, a time during which we can reflect on and appreciate some aspects of the human experience that in my view are vigorously embodied in the Liberal Arts—and our own College of Arts and Sciences—and which in these loud times can easily become obscured by other, perhaps less consequential, aspects of life. I wish tonight to speak not just of scholarly or psychological things, but also to simply point toward quiet foundations of life—of living—that we all share, and that breathe within the body of a liberal arts education. In a world that seems enamored by noise and bottom lines and busy movement and transitory illusions that pass for certainty, it is crucial that we recognize the crux of aliveness, which typically is not noisy at all. The liberal arts, in substantial ways, represent and contribute directly to the development of a good life, not as much because of their content but more because of the adventure that they exemplify. They’re alive because of the mystery.Although at times we may become seduced into believing that our lives’ value can best be measured simply and numerically—by our bank account balances or the number of awards we win or the number of cars we own—it cannot. Not even close. And perhaps now more than ever before in history, we must remind ourselves to cherish the softer aspects of living, including wonder and our inexhaustible search for meaning.
In 1993, Peter Drucker wrote, Every few hundred years in Western History there occurs a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades, society—its world view, its basic values, political structure, its arts, its key institutions—rearranges itself. Fifty years later there is a new world. . .We are currently living through such a transformation” (p. 1). Maureen O’Hara, former president of the Saybrook Graduate School and a member of the International Futures Forum, describes some of the aspects of this global transformation, its nature and effects. Accelerating change is occurring because of several factors (O’Hara, in press): spectacular innovations in technology; rapid economic and cultural globalization; a change from an energy-based industrial economy to an economy based on knowledge and service; a change in age demographics; and increasing environmental pressures. Our customary anchors of geography, culture and worldview can no longer be depended upon, leading to increased anxiety. We search for certainty, for relief, in a world less occupied by certainty. Ironically, although the transmission of information occurs at mushrooming levels never before dreamed of, the changing world makes it harder to know anything for sure. This difficulty is reflected in recent findings and developments I found sobering. A survey found that, compared to the United States, only Turkey has a lower percentage of citizens who believe the basic tenets of the theory of evolution and who possess a basic understanding of genetics. We are having problems integrating our knowledge of the world with our beliefs. Kansas, of course, made a decision to include what is called Intelligent Design alongside of evolution in biology classes. My difficulties with that resolution were based primarily on what it demonstrated and implied.
First, it demonstrated a lack of understanding of the scientific concept “theory,” and we would often hear, “Evolution is only a theory.” In science, a theory is a human construction that has specific components and structure, can be falsified, and grows and develops as we continue exploring and testing; that is important to know. A theory is not a thrown-off idea as it is often used as in everyday conversation, such as a barroom discussion that includes the statement, “Here’s my theory on UFOs.” More importantly, Intelligent Design’s principle that certain phenomena in life are too complex to be scientifically examined, and therefore represent evidence of supernatural origin carries an implicit recommendation: “Quit wondering about those things in nature. Let them go.” I think such a perspective woefully underestimates human curiosity and ability. As Aristotle noted, we are the creatures who, above all else, “desire to know.” The escalating complexity of society, its explosion of technology and information, provides us with many gifts and conveniences, but with every welcome e-mail there come twelve spam—for unbelievable mortgage rates and stock tips, for various forms of body enlargement and shrinkage, and for uncountable millions of dollars from a foreign diplomat—and it is the same with the changes we’re now living through: There are useful, welcome messages and there is spam. We are still struggling with the process of distinguishing between the two, of becoming reliable spam filters.These cultural changes have portended an increase in anxiety and cognitive dissonance as we are exposed to more and more information that challenges our usual ways of thinking about the world, and to a diversity of people, many who do not fit neatly into the worlds we have to date constructed for ourselves. Historically we have sculpted our identities and goals and pride by creating definitions of and rivalries between “us” and “them.” The usefulness of such a perspective is evaporating as globalization occurs, and a global story in which we all play important roles has not emerged. We have yet to fully appreciate the immense value of diversity in humanity that always has been plainly evident in the rest of nature.
As we continue to be inundated with information and increasing demands, there are specific effects on us. As a people we are becoming heavier, less active and much lonelier, which begins sketching a portrait of evolving humans as passive, isolated, uncritical receptacles of information. Merely consumers. This stands in stark contrast to the qualities that have become muted and less revered, but which have led to our species’ most sparkling moments: activity, interaction, creativity, dialogue, compassion, cheerful reflection and wonder. A dramatic shift in our modes of discourse has occurred. Witness how we discuss important national issues, particularly in the media. Two sides are presented—only two, typically polar opposites—pundits discharge a simple viewpoint devoid of nuance or detail, without any supporting evidence, and stated with absolute certainty. Our implicit role in that situation, quite clearly, has been reduced from actively and critically considering arguments to simply choosing sides. Why? Because it’s easier, we’re besieged with information, and we’re busy, too busy. Political campaigns have become less an exciting drama of passionate conviction than simple marketing. We are moving from being participants to consumers. This does not bode well for a democracy, which by definition requires participation.
How do others perceive this ultimate value of consumption? This past summer my wife and I were in San Diego and one evening visited with our waiter, a young man from Malaysia. We asked him what impressed him most upon moving to the United States. He said that while he enjoys working and then spending his free time enjoying himself with family and friends, to his eyes Americans spend a lot of time and energy “buying things to show them to each other.” Makes you wonder.We must maintain sympathy for ourselves as we live through this transformation. We are doing our best to make sense of things, and we have less free time in which to do it. As we leave a classroom, instead of pondering an important point that emerged during a discussion, we must make a cell phone call so we can tell someone, “As of this moment, I am walking out of the classroom.” We do not as often chart our next adventure as consult our BlackBerries to see where we are required to go, and then are guided to our destinations by our global positioning systems. We are so busy that in the past two decades, the number of completely friendless Americans has doubled (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006) as we increasingly sequester ourselves, whether within the boundaries of our cities or countries, our political parties, our cultures, our ethnic groups, even in gated communities. It should come as no surprise that in these loud times—in which cars honk to let us know they are locked, when a muffled click used to suffice—we are attempting to deal with the rapid changes through imposing structure on most human enterprises. We are trying to get a hold on life, to make it lie down flat on the paper. Most would agree that the advent of the business model enhanced our society and its prosperity in countless ways over the past century. However, as we humans often do, if we find something of benefit we begin applying it to everything in sight. As the old saying goes, “When you get a new hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” Currently, we see a business model being applied to everything from social services to education, from romantic matchmaking to health maintenance. In the social services, we used to see patients, then clients, then consumers, then customers. What used to be a noble human enterprise marked by compassion and creativity and care has been reduced, for the time being, to a business transaction. Even in education, the shift has been toward borrowing approaches from the business community, “using quality management, measurable goals and objectives, standardization, scalability and gearing curricula more directly to the job market” (O’Hara, in press, p. 2).
Such an approach has value and makes important contributions. We will make it work as best as it can. At the same time, it is important to remember that whenever we look through the lens of any single model or theory, it is similar to looking through eyeglass lenses: Some things can appear more clearly only because we bend and distort their images; those things outside the purview of the lenses are rendered invisible. We do not see our blind spots. We make our visual fields, and our worlds, fit together, create an illusion of seamless completeness that does not exist.We must probe our blind spots. We must search for the missing parts of the story. And we must remember that as much or more truth can be found in books of poetry as within the pages of ledgers.Given these astounding changes and the models we are using to manage them, it should come as no surprise that many college students focus upon an educational track that will lead to a job with the highest possible income, not only because that will enhance the chances of economic survival, but also because today’s students complete their educations in more debt than ever before. Who then can blame them? Their choices have practical implications. Income is easier to measure than consequence. And we’re busy. Perhaps for many the quality of life is established by income or by fulfilling an open slot in the marketplace. So be it. However, we should remember that the more specialized our knowledge is and the more specific our work functions are, the more likely we are to become obsolete in a quickly changing world (O’Hara, in press, p. 11).
There is another viewpoint important for students, in fact for all of us, to consider. Howard Thurman, a San Francisco theologian, said, “Ask not what the world needs, rather ask what makes you come alive and go do that, for what the world needs is people who have come alive” (cited in Schneider, p. 88). The most fulfilling careers are those that provide us with a surplus of days that end with the thought that we were lucky to be alive to witness them. Wonder and meaning, though less honored within the context of a consumer world (since, like hope and compassion, they can be neither bought nor sold), are two gentle ways we come alive. In our quieter moments, we know that.What do the Liberal Arts have to offer? Can they contribute to the process of waking up, coming alive? I argue that they are magnificent examples of coming alive. I am not claiming that immersion in the Liberal Arts is a panacea, nor am I suggesting that the Liberal Arts represent the only pathway by which one can find meaning and wonder. Far from it. You will find wondering, reflective, wise people in every walk of life. I also am not maintaining that occupation-specific training has no value. Of course it does; all of us need instruction to learn how to do things that need to be done.What I am saying is that a Liberal Arts education—represented at Western Illinois University by the College of Arts and Sciences—is one of the rare and precious contexts today in which one is actively invited to wonder, to embrace mystery, to live more fully, to develop not just know-how but wisdom, not just relationship skills but compassion, not just bottom lines but conscience.This is why I encourage incoming freshmen to consider the WIU course catalog as a buffet menu. Taste some subjects you have never sampled before; you may be surprised at how good some of them taste and, in the process, find yourself developing exciting new appetites. This process is important because, no matter the career, I’m convinced that the most inspired and inspiring among us are those who have the broadest base in the liberal arts.
Every area of study directly informs the others. The appreciation of this is one hallmark of wisdom.When I attended WIU, I loved the Liberal Arts courses I took, although I never appreciated what bound them together. The answer came into sharp focus for me when I was a senior and decided to take a course in Existentialism taught by the late Dr. Kretzschmar. Although memory reconfigures events, even people, to fit our narratives, I remember Dr. Kretzschmar as the prototypical French philosopher: impeccably dressed and sporting a moustache with twirled tips so sharp you could puncture balloons on them. There were only three students in the class and frequently Dr. Kretzschmar would open a class session by leaning back in his chair and intoning, “So what does life mean?” I remember thinking to myself, “Now, this is a college education.”Traditionally, liberal arts were distinct from what were termed the servile arts. The latter was job training, preparation for playing a specific productive role in society, most often as a slave. Liberal arts were designed to engender leadership, direct participation in a democracy. Although in subsequent centuries such bold lines of demarcation have happily softened, there remains truth in that distinction. It’s the distinction between doing and being.There is a more important distinction in my view. Whereas in principle one can master occupational skills to a reasonable degree, without exception the liberal arts cannot be mastered. It’s not about the mastery; it’s about the mystery. What ultimately attracts us and keeps us attracted to these fields are the mysteries, the questions. Although the field of psychology has built impressive storehouses of valuable knowledge in just a little over a century, I prefer to point to the challenges and mysteries of the field when I refer to psychology as “chasing the mist.” We are actively exploring the intangible, and it is as if in the distance we see faint outlines of ultimate answers about the human mind and often find, when we reach toward them, that they vanish in the night air, change shape, dance away. I love that. Albert Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” (1930/1954, p. 11). More pointedly, the Persian poet Rumi wrote, “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.”Life is at its most vibrant when, for a moment, it takes on the aura of a Twilight Zone episode: something unexpected appears, experience wrinkles, angles defy logic, preconceptions will not suffice. Attention is demanded. It is there—at the outer boundaries of our bank of knowledge—where our grand adventure lies. It is there where wonder is our best companion.
Humans as Scientists and Storytellers
The human brain is an astonishing, as yet largely impenetrable, object, and its exploration through emerging technologies has already yielded thrilling insights about how we think, how we go about the process of making meaning in our lives, and how central meaning making is to our existences. Consider this: Of the 10,000 billion neurons in our nervous systems, only 100 million are dedicated to detecting the outer world through our senses (see Von Foerster, 1984). We are expending 100 thousand times more brainpower to making sense of our world than we are merely sensing it. Therefore, the depiction of a human being as a passive receptacle and recorder of data cannot be in the least bit accurate. Most of our brains are devoted to detecting internal changes, seeking patterns, making meaning. Despite the fact that the metaphor has served us well in some ways over the past hundred years, we are not machinery. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, developed his theory of human psychological functioning while he was a prisoner in the concentration camp. Of his many insights, a central one was this: We human beings have a will to meaning, and “this striving for a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in life” (Frankl, 1984, p. 104). It’s what keeps us moving. It’s what keeps us alive. The search for meaning requires mystery. Everything else is decoration.
My speculation is this: In our quiet, thoughtful moments—when we are mowing the lawn or drifting off to sleep or folding clothes or taking a walk in the woods—we appreciate the enormity of this adventure we share; we sense what Heidegger called our “thrownness,” the fact that human beings are forevermore thrust into these bodies, naked and ignorant, into a story that’s already unfolding. Life is both frightening and exhilarating. For this reason, I have long considered the most accurate cultural embodiment of our existential presence to be Deputy Barney Fife, the character portrayed by Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show. On the surface, all of us apply much energy to convince others and ourselves that we are unruffled, unflaggingly confident, and untroubled, while inside we are wide-eyed, uncertain, and at least a bit rattled by the whole thing. Also like Barney, we all do our best. We somehow appreciate that the enormity and strangeness of life is something we cannot fruitfully discuss with others; if we tried, it would end up sounding like guys sitting in front of a gas station drinking soda: “This life thing is pretty strange.” “Sure is.” “Yep, it’s peculiar all right.” There’s nowhere for that conversation to go, so we do the next best thing: We carve out smaller mysteries of life and focus on them. Some of these mysteries are perfectly represented in the Liberal Arts.History, African-American Studies, Political Science and Women’s Studies offer more than accounts of disembodied facts; they are living stories of triumph and resilience, of understanding and ignorance, and the insights they offer us can help us to avoid repeating past mistakes and multiply our chances of becoming what we want to be. Sociology and Anthropology, Psychology, and Philosophy and Religious Studies are more than unconnected tenets of our humanity; they point to rich journeys of the human being adjusting and growing and finding consequence in our common voyage. Geology, Geography, Physics, Environmental Studies, Biological Sciences and Chemistry are more than repositories of data from our labors to understand our world; each harkens us toward amazement at the extent and the interplay of the components of the universe we share. Foreign Languages and Literatures, English and Journalism not only provide tools for shaping and conveying our understandings of ourselves and the planet; they portray our appreciation of the human quest to reveal our unfolding stories in fiction and non-fiction and poetry. Mathematics is too often seen as inscrutable mechanics, when actually it is an entirely unique, living approach that permits us to pose and answer questions that otherwise would be impossible, to capture slivers of life that we otherwise cannot even see, and to unconsciously learn ways to manage human problems. In each case, these areas of study do provide facts and skill training, to be sure; but that is the least of it. Facts and skills only provide us with a map that we can spread out on the table before us; it is then that our adventure truly begins.
From the time we gain self-consciousness as infants, we human beings are on the road to becoming happy scientists and storytellers, always mining life for meaning, probing and poking it to tease out its secrets, and sharing what we learn with others even as we listen to their discoveries. Think of it: When you review your life up to this moment, it’s a story, with all the required elements: characters, a sequence of causal events, plot twists, themes, tragedies, and triumphs. It is no accident that even our entertainments are stories: novels, movies, TV shows, jokes, even videogames. It is not because someone millennia ago fashioned the idea of story in order to provide us with a way to transport knowledge; it is because the narrative is the way we naturally structure our lives. Many believe that the reason we cannot remember our earliest eighteen to twenty-four months is because we have yet to learn the narrative structure that we use to encapsulate and warehouse our experiences. Without a story in which to embed them, life’s moments dissipate as soon as they are lived. Along with the cultures in which we live, and the human beings we know, we are co-authors of our lives. It is a central fact that is easy to take for granted.Our memories are more than pure, unadulterated recordings of our days. We work with them, shape them to fit our stories, or change our stories to accommodate them. This is not to say that we simply make them up; at all times we try our best to respect accuracy. However, it is as noted science fiction author and eminent thinker Philip José Farmer wrote: “Memory, like film and printing, is a medium. Which means that every person is a writer or painter or film director or all three and much more.” (1984, p. 101). We apply the narrative structure to all of the events of our lives. When we lose someone we care about—through death, divorce, relocation—we immediately begin forming a story to explain it to ourselves (e.g., see Neimeyer, 2001), perhaps using our spiritual, philosophical or religious ideas. Think of the last time you experienced an unusual symptom—a mysterious ache or pain, for example. Almost immediately, before you see a physician and receive diagnosis and treatment—you begin searching for a cause, explaining it to yourself, psychologically fashioning a story that accounts for the symptom. Or what about the student who is surprised by a failing grade on an exam? A story quickly emerges to explain the event, and research suggests that for many students that story is something along the lines of, “The professor tricked us!” I do not mean to minimize the importance or the truth of the stories we fashion. Our stories are not simply whatever we can make up at the time; they are efforts to truly understand, and represent the foundation of experience. Our days and weeks and lifetimes are stories, as are our careers, our marriages, and our friendships. We all do our best to take what we have learned from our own lives, what others have told us, what we have read and heard, and make sense of our days. How we choose to author the story of our lives determines much about how we think and feel about the world, others, and ourselves.
One area of clinical psychology that has long fascinated me is the act of psychiatric diagnosis (Knight, 2006), which is one way our culture has developed to make sense of each other, to create a story that explains deviance from the norm (e.g., Scheff, 1984; Brandt, 1975). During my career the number of psychiatric diagnoses has more than tripled. Is this because scientists have discovered hundreds of new mental illnesses? Not at all. These diagnoses are largely narratives; they are established by committees, which as many of us know can visit mischief upon us even when their intentions are pure. Of the hundreds of psychiatric diagnoses, a mere handful have been shown to be physical illnesses, yet we are actively invited to assume otherwise, to join the cultural narrative that troublesome human problems are diseases. This smoothes the health care system, allowing people to receive services that benefit them, but it has other consequences as well. For example, a recent study found that nearly one fourth of insured patients receiving an antipsychotic medication were nine years of age and younger, even though the long-range implications of these drugs’ use with children are completely unknown (Curtis et al., 2005). This trend is one reason I have become more passionate about presenting this issue in my writings and workshops. We need to talk about it.
In my opinion, as we have become more inundated with information and our tolerance for one another has diminished, we have succumbed to the temptation of considering more and more human behaviors and emotions to be abnormal—the range of normal has shrunk—and thus label more and more behaviors as diseases: everything from gambling problems to excessive stealing, from eating disorders to bedwetting. This is an improvement, of course, from considering them as evidence of demonic possession, but it carries baggage all its own.
When this issue arises in discussion, a common response is, “So you’re dismissing them? You’re saying they aren’t real problems?” This only serves to illustrate a primary point: We are given only two choices when human beings’ problems become distressing to themselves or others: (1) their problems are conscious, willful decisions, meaning that people are individually responsible for their difficulties and less deserving of compassion or assistance, or (2) they have physical diseases, meaning they are neither essentially responsible for the difficulties nor their solutions. Why are those our only choices? Can human beings have troubles and deserve compassion without a biological disease? If not, why? This is one effect of applying a business model to human problems: We are left with the notion that we must somehow earn one another’s care and compassion through satisfying some criteria. I don’t think that works.
My point is simply this: We have, for the time, decided as a culture to perceive human problems as essentially difficulties with the machinery, and we are consuming medications at rates never before seen. This demonstrates that the ways we make sense of things determine how we act and think about them.
If you need further evidence that how we attach meaning to something establishes how we regard it, ask the next generation about Pluto.
Even at an early age we begin to recognize that the creative process of narrative is not enough. If our stories remain static and remain only in our heads, they harden, become brittle, and finally break. . . or break us. How do we reconcile our developing stories with the world we bump up against every moment? This is where the young scientist comes into our worlds. We ask questions of our surroundings, we hypothesize, we test, we record results and we learn. Without much searching, you all can remember episodes of scientific experimentation you conducted.When I was four years old, I came home one Sunday and posed a scientific inquiry. That morning, we had sung “I got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart” in Sunday school class. Once home, I thought to myself, “Joy. Hmmm. I think my Mom’s got some of that stuff.” Assuming that this might prove to be a less demanding way to get joy into my heart, I retrieved the bottle of Joy dishwashing liquid from beneath the sink and took a momentarily satisfying swig. Results were duly noted. That day I learned something of multiple definitions for words, and something of human anatomy.Another time I saw a cartoon in which a character became impervious to pain using only pillows. “Worth a test.” I held a throw pillow up to my face and told my brother, “Hit me. It won’t hurt.” Results were duly noted. Did I mention I was 38 at the time?Nature has proven itself steadfast in providing answers to our questions when they are correctly posed and examined. Our biggest challenges involve coming up with the questions and discovering the best way to proceed so that nature responds to them in a way we can understand and use. The application of the scientific model has allowed us to evolve our understandings magnificently, and findings in all of the sciences have made our lives clearer and healthier and more productive.But science, like every model, has its limitations, perhaps most apparent in the social sciences. It’s been stated that psychology can never be a “real science” because we cannot localize what we’re studying in space and time (Fiske, 1978); we are “chasing a mist.” To study the human mind, we can only do so by reducing it from its marvelous whole to its possible components, from its essence to its products. Jerome Bruner (1979) made this observation about the results of typical psychological research: “The more rigorously isolated from context and the more tightly controlled the conditions of experiment, the more precise and the more modest the results have been [emphasis added]” (p. 170). When we remove pieces of life from the context of life itself, we can learn a lot about a little, and only a little about a lot. It’s one of those dilemmas that keep us happily scratching our heads.The rigors of science and the freedom of creativity are equally necessary for us to understand our lives and to reach our potentials. One without the other is, by nature, limiting. Science provides us with necessary tethers to the world we share, and allows us to test our beliefs to determine whether they reflect the world outside; imagination permits us to soar and to consider the previously inconceivable, to create new questions that science itself does not supply. Both are vital. The ongoing background conversation between the arts and the sciences gives life its shape.This is where wonder becomes central. De Pascuale wrote, 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 it. (2003, p. 49)Wonder is one of many central human elements that psychology has a difficult time touching, much less isolating and measuring. As of now wonder can be better described and explained in poetry and prose, in ideas, than it can be sequestered and computed. It is like so many important human capacities: The act of describing it can be like squashing a bug beneath a glass slide; we see its edges more clearly, but it is no longer alive. So we must tread carefully. What is wonder? How does it play a role in the good life? How does education in the Arts and Sciences contribute to its development and nurturance?
The Oasis of Wonder and Awe
Robert Fuller, who spoke at WIU last autumn, wrote, “Experiences of wonder are triggered by encounters with novel and unexpected stimuli. Wonder thus accompanies sensory input that defies existing associative categories and exceeds current boundaries of understanding” (2006, p. 41). We see something we have never seen before; we have no way to quickly categorize it and our search for new meaning begins. It is at that boundary—between sensing uniqueness and applying meaning—that we are enveloped by wonder. Think of a time in your life when you were in a state of wonder or awe. When wonder occurs, our senses are heightened, our preconceptions fall away, our movement slows. . . and we shut up. No noise, either inside or outside. Even the little chatter and commentary we carry around in our heads ceases for a moment. We are in full receptive mode, ready to receive whatever we can. The products of wonder are multi-dimensional, and have both emotional and cognitive features. Wonder is indeed an emotion, a warm and pleasant fullness. The experience itself inspires awe—a graceful combination of humility and reverence. For a passing instant we perceive a larger order of things that we cannot define. It is ultimately paradoxical, for wonder “is both the opposite of wisdom and is wisdom itself” (Schaeffer, 1999, p. 641).
Richard of St. Victor wrote that wonder consists of sudden light mixed with darkness, the light of vision mingled with remnants of incredulity and with the darkness of uncertainty, so that in a wonderful way the mind sees without doubt what she scarcely dares to believe. But the more we wonder at the newness of the thing the more earnestly we observe it; and the more carefully we consider it the more fully we come to know it. For attention grows by wonder and knowledge by attention. (1957, pp. 195-196) Indeed, the practical product of wonder is knowledge, and what we do through this process is to establish new neural connections, new pathways in our brains that have never before been present. Wonder likely stimulates multiple portions of the brain, including those that receive, relay and distribute input from the senses, those that regulate motivation and emotion, even the portion that administers pleasant stimulation. But it is important to note that we cannot be certain; wonder, this elegant blend of interest, curiosity and joy, simply cannot be reliably captured in the laboratory. The end result of wonder is new learning, new ways of understanding the world and its inhabitants, new ways of solving problems and creating and behaving. Its promises are limitless, because “(t)he number of possible combinations of synaptic connections among the neurons in a single human brain is larger than the total number of atomic particles that make up the known universe” (Thompson, 2000, p. 3). We have infinite options in construing our worlds. One aspect of wonder is often omitted, in my view. Most descriptions indicate that wonder is caused by a surprising event that does not conform to our normal ways of putting together the world. While that is true, it makes it sound as if environment determines it. Most of us know, and have experienced, moments in our lives that we suddenly felt a sense of wonder about something—a plant, an animal, a constellation in the sky, the face or actions of a loved one—that we have seen thousands of times before. It is important that we do not leave ourselves out of the equation, as is our tendency; we can choose to be curious, to be open to wonder. It just takes practice and a bit of encouragement—but not much—because this is a normal activity of the human mind, one that does not die easily.
I do not have time to explore all of the possible positive outcomes of the experience of wonder. They are abundant and, in fact, do not line up neatly one after the other. They make up, instead, a glorious Gordian knot, impossible to unravel. Suffice it to say that the existence of wonder in our lives increases our humility, respect, empathy, humor, sense of responsibility, and compassion.K. D. Moore summed it up nicely: A person with a sense of wonder moves quietly and humbly across the sand, recognizing that there is a hidden world there in the night, quite apart from the brightly lit human world behind the dunes, and that this world is marvelous in itself, a fanciful world of tiny legs, sparking brains and wary eyes, sighing, striving, and dying in utter disregard of the vanities of humankind. (2005, p. 271)Although it can be persuasively argued these attributes I have discussed will enhance our creativity and effectiveness in our careers, and thus our incomes—therefore having positive implications even within a business model—they are treasures in and of themselves. They enlarge our lives. They allow us to see far beyond the bottom line.I am reminded of the story recounted in Loren Eiseley’s book The Star Thrower (1979). The author encountered a boy along a sandy beach that was virtually covered with starfish that had been washed up on shore. The boy was picking up the starfish, one by one, and throwing them back into the ocean. In true “bottom line” fashion, the man asked the boy why he was bothering; with so many stranded starfish, it wouldn’t make any difference. Lifting one of the creatures, the boy said, “Mister, it’s going to make a lot of difference to this one.”
Implications for Education
Marcel Proust wrote,
The only true voyage of discovery, the only really rejuvenating experience, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is. (1982, p. 260)
New lands are important; new eyes are essential. An appetite for wonder and access to an education marked by breadth and depth are equally crucial to the creation of new eyes.
If we agree that these qualities of wonder and awe, of humility, of empathy and compassion, serve to improve our lives as individuals and, as such, contribute to the continuing advancement and enlightenment and survival of our species, can these qualities be even better nurtured through education? Indeed they can and, although time tonight allows mentioning only generalities, I hope that future discussions can be pursued, within and without the campus. Many represent values that we already embrace, albeit quietly. Such educational efforts “emphasize discovery, not mechanics or regurgitation” (Schneider, p. 88); keep impressive technology secondary to human contact and “hands-on” or service learning; and underscore relevancy and historical context of the concepts we teach. We should take every opportunity to dissolve the walls between our disciplines, to collaborate and share whenever we can. We are all studying the same thing. Departments are administrative conveniences and the greatest treasures may be found in the intersections and the empty spaces that separate our fields.Although the mission of higher education seems drenched by the language of business, we should not be timid about acknowledging that one of the most important roles of education is not to impart knowledge, but rather to cultivate people. To echo John Dewey, we need to recognize that education is not preparation for living, but rather a process of living.Despite the fact that some—including a tiny portion of the American right, and the government of Iran—would have us restrict what we explore and how we explore it, that viewpoint misses the heart of education. Indeed, education and the Liberal Arts ultimately do not tell you what to think; they invite you to think. They do not tell you how to live; they invite you to live.
Are these quiet attributes of human life I have discussed tonight absolutely necessary? That depends on your goals. You get to choose. Should they forced on people? Probably not, but they do deserve to be held up and clearly celebrated and modeled and fostered by those of us who value them; they need to remain a part of our cultural dialogue as we swim through the new knowledge society. Their availability as choices, as paths to waking up, needs always to be highlighted in our works.Having said that, I acknowledge that there are those who find solace in a more resigned and less engaged approach to life. Many years ago I was working with a woman who was living through terrible problems, and one day after a session her husband gestured me into the waiting room. He whispered, “You know, Doc, I just don’t see why she’s so upset all the time. It’s like I tell her: There’s nothing worth worrying about, because in fifty years we’ll all be dust anyway.” Thereafter, we called him “Mr. Sunshine.” You have to acknowledge that, with that attitude, he likely felt little distress in his life. At the same time, he probably experienced relatively little passion or excitement. If you turn down the volume knob of emotion, of being, everything becomes muted. The choice is there for each of us.In an Afterword to his novel The Colorado Kid, Stephen King wrote: [W]e live in a web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality. Where do we come from? Where were we before we were here? Don’t know. Where are we going? Don’t know. . . . In the meantime, we’re in a kind of compulsory dodgeball game as we free-fall from Whatever to Ain’t Got a Clue. Sometimes bombs go off and sometimes the planes land okay and sometimes the blood tests come back clean and sometimes the biopsies come back positive. Most times the telephone call doesn’t come in the middle of the night but sometimes it does, and either way we know we’re going to drive pedal-to-the-metal into the mystery eventually. . . . It’s crazy to be able to live with that and stay sane, but it’s also beautiful. . .[I]t’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to live sane as we pilot our fragile bodies through this demolition-derby world. We always want to reach for the lights in the sky. (2005, p. 184)I hold that when we allow the busy movement and noise to recede into the background and resist the seduction of certainty, we are, in a tangible way, reaching toward the lights in the sky. We are witnessing the mystery. And that mystery is embedded in and embodied by the liberal arts. Indeed, the Liberal Arts display—even when not openly acknowledged—some of those lights in the sky. They mold the mystery and request our wonder, which themselves form the silent bedrock upon which our careers and our lives can be most splendidly realized.
I believe I have reached most of my goals tonight, a primary one of which was to mention Marcel Proust and Barney Fife in the same lecture.As I wrote the words I’ve shared, a woman with whom I once worked appeared in my mind again and again, and I wasn’t sure why. Truthfully, I continue to think of her at least weekly despite the fact that we worked together over fifteen years ago, and I believe her friendly reappearance has something to do with the heart of this discussion. For me, it was an instance when all the theories and techniques and know-how in my field ended up counting for very little, and yet it has remained one of the most meaningful cases in which I’ve been involved.She was referred to me because she was terminally ill and depressed. I immediately recognized that a psychiatric diagnosis was absolutely meaningless. What would that tell me that was not already evident? Would it have been somehow mentally healthier for her to shrug and say, “So what?” We quickly established a wonderful relationship and she seemed to find meaning and comfort simply by being allowed, within that special relationship, to explore her dilemma, her story. Within weeks she became unable to travel to the office for appointments, so in true Midwestern-country-doctor form, the physician and I alternated making after-hours house calls regularly. These continued for many, many months.I was reminded of the human being’s natural impetus to change the night I received a call from her husband at two in the morning. He was upset because, for the first time, his wife was completely unable to sleep and seemed inconsolably terrified. I drove to their home and sat next to the hospital bed where she lay in the living room. Her vision had begun to dwindle and so we held hands to remind one another we were there. Instead of trying to impose some sleep-inducing technique on her, I elected to talk with her and, more importantly, to listen. She asked if I had noticed whether any of their flowers were blooming in the back yard. I answered that I had noticed some pretty blue flowers when I’d been there earlier in the day. She smiled and sighed and said, “Those are my Kentucky Blue Belles. Those are special. I can still remember when we got them.” I could see she was transporting herself, so I asked her to tell me more and she began describing a glorious vacation she and her husband had taken to Arkansas, replete with vivid descriptions of the sweet-smelling breeze that caressed them as they stood on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley, the unbroken blue sky, the tender radiance of the sun kissing the back of her neck. A moment of wonder.And she went to sleep smiling. This highlighted for me that, whether or not they fully recognize it, people usually know where they need to go and how to get there. They don’t need a shove in some direction we have designed for them based upon our procedural manuals or bottom line requirements; they need doors of possibility. . . and they need company. As do we all.A week later I returned. By that time it was clear that the end was near. We sat for a time and exchanged some news as she liked to do, perhaps to remind herself she was still part of the story. Then came this silence. For a few passing moments, I saw her struggling, peering desperately into the corners of the room for the story of what would come. I, too, found myself, quite against my will, searching for a narrative that would tell me what would come next, and would provide me with some sense of certainty. I even imagined her face shining with peace and understanding as she told me what was happening and how good it was.Then, almost simultaneously, we released our preconceptions and it was as if masks had fallen from our faces.And with the day’s final sunlight draining into dark, we gripped each other’s forearms, gazed into each other’s eyes. . .and we wondered.
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READINGS
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Bruner, J. (1979). On knowing: Essays for the left hand. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Bulkeley, K. (2002). The evolution of wonder: Religious and neuroscientific perspectives. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, November 23, 2002, Toronto, Canada.
Curtis, L. H., Masselink, L. E., Ostbye, T., Hutchison, S., Dans, P. E., Wright, A., Krishnan, R. R., & Schulman, K. A. (2005). Prevalence of atypical antipsychotic drug use among commercially insured youths in the United State. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 159, 362-366.
Deikman, A. J. (1982). The observing self. Boston: Beacon Press.
De Pascuale, J. (2003). A wonder full life. Notre Dame Magazine, September 2003, 49.
Drucker, P. F. (19393) Post-capitalist society. New York: Harper Collins.
Einstein, A. (1954). The world as I see it. In Ideas and opinions (pp. 8-11). New York: Crown.
Eisley, L. (1979). The star thrower. New York: Harcourt.
Farmer, P. J. (1984). The grand adventure. New York: Berkley.
Fiske, D. W. (1978). Strategies for personality research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fox, S. (1981). John Muir and his legacy: The American conservation movement. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning (3rd ed.). New York: Touchstone.
Fuller, R. C. (2006). Wonder: From emotion to spirituality. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
International Futures Forum (2003). Ten things to do in a conceptual emergency. St. Andrews, Scotland: Author.
King. S. (2005). The Colorado kid. New York: Dorchester.
Knight, T. A. (2006). The emperor has no codes: Diagnosis as cradle and cage. Paper presented at the Constructivist Psychology Network conference, San Marcos, CA, July 20, 2006.
LeShan, L. & Margenau, H. (1982). Einstein’s space and Van Gogh’s sky: Physical reality and beyond. New York: Collier.
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Popper, K. (1994). In search of a better world: Lectures and essays from thirty years. New York: Routledge.
Proust, M. (1982). Remembrance of Things Past (Vol. 3), (C. K. S. Moncrieff & T. Kilmartin, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.
Quinn, D. (1969). Donne and the wane of wonder. ELH, 36, 626-647.
Richard of St. Victor (1957). Benjamin Major. In Selected writings on contemplation (C. Kirchberger, Trans.), pp. 195-196. London: Faber and Faber.
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Schaeffer, D. (1999). Wisdom and wonder in metaphysics A: 1-2. The Review of Metaphysics, 52, 641-657.
Schneider, K. J. (2004). Rediscovery of awe: Splendor, mystery, and the fluid center of life. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.
Solow, J. E. (2000). Living with wonder: A phenomenological investigation of adult lives. Dissertation Abstracts International, 61, 6-B, 3265.
Thompson, R. F. (2000). The brain: A neuroscience primer. New York: Worth.
Von Foerster, H. (1984 ). On constructing a reality. In P. Watzlawick (Ed.), The invented reality (pp. 41-61). New York: W. W. Norton
Watzlawick, P. (Ed.) (1984). The invented reality. New York: W. W. Norton.