Wonder | 3 Essentials of Growth
Updated: May 4, 2020
Wonder is an open-minded and open-hearted look. It is a gaze that is vulnerable to the truth, and it is the appropriate response to the complexity of life and nature. Holding yourself in wonder is a foundation of healthy self-improvement.
"If I just felt bad enough, I wouldn't do this anymore." Can you relate to this thought? This mindset can hold us in a place of self-condemnation, beating ourselves up. We might think we can force ourselves to do good. We try to leverage negative feelings to control our lives. It is an act of self-bullying. "I can control myself if I feel bad enough."
Negative emotions can provide strong motivation to change (1). Still, I wonder if it is useful to impose negative feelings on ourselves? It seems like the majority of contemporary self-help and psychology propose the opposite extreme, demanding positive emotions. I wonder if the imposition of positivity might be as hindering as negativity.
I think that reality is the best teacher. Life is a mix of negative and positive. Continuous growth happens when we learn from the state of affairs where we find ourselves. We need to be in touch with the embodied experience of feelings, with other people's reactions, and with our intuitive thoughts without trying to impose positive or negative thoughts and emotions. As Christ said to those who believe in him:
"If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8: 31B-32
Christ is undoubtedly referring to himself as the truth, but the truth is also things as they are. Being in touch with reality at the moment will set us free. There is no need to impose positivity or negativity. Let the state of affairs deeply impact you. Be vulnerable to the moment. Make the most of the opportunity that is reality and learn from it.
One of the buzz words in contemporary psychology and self-help literature is "curiosity." Curiosity refers to the non-judgemental and open-minded consideration of things. It roams in possibilities and considers all angles. Being curious inoculates against self-condemnation. Brené Brown, one of the most popular personal improvement influencers, puts it like this:
"Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. It wasn't always a choice; we were born curious. But over time, we learn that curiosity, like vulnerability, can lead to hurt. As a result, we turn to self-protecting—choosing certainty over curiosity, armor over vulnerability, and knowing over learning."Brené Brown, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
She claims that we are curious by default, and life teaches us to close our minds. Staying curious is vulnerable, but it opens us up to learning. Curiosity can hold the key to moving through a struggle instead of staying stuck.
Historically curiosity was considered a vice. I don't believe contemporary proponents of curiosity and classical and medieval thinkers are using the term the same way. Still, I think an examination of the older notion of curiosity can help us use it more effectively.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, studiousness is an ordered desire for and pursuit of knowledge (2). Studiousness becomes the vice of curiosity when we unnecessarily chase insights, we have a disordered thirst for knowledge, or we seek information in an unhealthy way.
Studiousness is deformed into curiosity by impure motives. In the summary of theology, Aquinas gives the example of Pride. We can seek knowledge to look smart or out of unhealthy self-reliance. We could also study to learn to do something harmful or sinful to ourselves or others. We need to approach self-exploration with pure motives. If our intentions are off, then the self-exploration itself can be destructive.
Seeking incomplete, unhelpful, or harmful knowledge also twists studiousness into curiosity. The most fundamental way to seek incomplete information is to seek it without reference to God. God is the first cause and the ultimate purpose of everything in nature. Removing God distorts everything. Some knowledge itself can be harmful. Unnecessary information about the occult or demonic is an example of this. Finally, curiosity can drive us to study ideas beyond our capacity. We need to start with the basics of a subject and build mastery over time. Jumping directly into an advanced text without familiarity with terminology or context leads to misunderstandings.
For our curious posture towards ourselves to be virtuous and lead to holistic growth, we need to start with healthy motivations. Our self-exploration should always have God in the picture. We need to stick to what is helpful and start simple. Learn the basics and master ideas over time
I think the term "wonder" holds the positive meanings of curiosity and studiousness. (3) Considering yourself with wonder is vulnerable and open-minded. Wonder is open to the whole and sensitive to God's involvement.
Healthy growth takes into account the whole person: body, mind, and soul. Wonder is the solid foundation of a philosophy of the body. In Plato's dialogue with Theatetus, he says:
"Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder."
Philosophy is "love of wisdom." Wonder is the starting point of gaining wisdom about ourselves. Wonder ensures that we are improving our whole and not just the parts of ourselves. For example, without this holistic approach, we may do something to lose weight that also seriously compromises our mental health.
Philosophy provides the context and structure of science. All scientific fields earn Ph. Ds (Philosophical Doctorates). In the first universities, all of the sciences were under the umbrella of philosophy. Philosophy of the body orders scientific insights from various disciplines towards the growth of the whole person. Philosophy of the body also connects scientific insights to God. It can help us develop natural theology that is pragmatic.
Approaching areas we want to grow in, we should wonder about the causes and solutions. Consider why you might be stuck. What trauma or wounds from your story are the roots of this behavior? Is this habit you want to change a response to your lifestyle? Does the system of your life require this behavior for survival? What beliefs insulate it from change? If you want to change, why haven't you yet? These are just some examples of questions to prompt wonder about the causes of our actions.
Closed-minded, self-condemning, and forceful solutions are not usually effective for holistic growth. If the area we want to change does seem to improve with force and self-flagellation, it will often cause harm in another area of our life.
An attitude of wonder can help us consider the behaviors we want to change as the symptoms of a dysfunctioning system. You might consider what aspects of my current lifestyle or unhealed past make this action necessary? How can you change your day to day life to address the legitimate needs you have? What are healthier and more virtuous ways you can care for yourself? What would be a more helpful reaction to have the next time you fall? These are a few ideas for questions to ask to find better solutions.
Wonder protects us from a reductionistic self-understanding. It opens our minds to the fact that despite our ever-increasing knowledge, we remain a mystery (4). Wonder makes it possible for us to see the Image of God in ourselves.
Give it a try. Put down the flail that you have disciplining yourself with, and pick up a telescope to explore the mystery of your life. Spend time with yourself, mourn your trauma, and let God heal your wounds. Discover the hand of God in your life, and share it with others.
(2) "studiousness is directly, not about knowledge itself, but about the desire and study in the pursuit of knowledge." Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II 167:1. The following section is a paraphrase of this article. See the full text at https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3167.htm.
(3) "wonder is a cause of pleasure, in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge which one desires to have. For this reason whatever is wonderful is pleasing, for instance things that are scarce. Also, representations of things, even of those which are not pleasant in themselves, give rise to pleasure; for the soul rejoices in comparing one thing with another, because comparison of one thing with another is the proper and connatural act of the reason, as the Philosopher says (Poet. iv). This again is why "it is more delightful to be delivered from great danger, because it is something wonderful," as stated in Rhetor. i, 11." Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II:32:8
(4) "The human person perceives oneself, directly or indirectly, as a mystery" The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo, 5