The Joy of Wonder
The Miracle of Wonder
It was a beautiful, warm July day when “Wonder” was born. My husband John and I were making the rounds of our property, checking out the latest fruits of our labor: the ripe tomatoes and green peppers grown from seeds started in our living room, the goji berries, the blue bird house filled with five tiny blue eggs, the daisies which found our field suitable for showing their bright yellow faces. It was the heat of summer and one of our hens had turned “broody,” a term denoting a hen’s maternal instincts had kicked in high gear, refusing to leave the nest to incubate the various eggs laid by our five hens. Sounds charming; however, without a rooster, the eggs were not fertile and it was an admirable, yet futile, endeavor. After contacting a friend with a rooster among their flock, John placed seven fertile eggs under the broody hen out of admiration for her commitment and perhaps a little sympathy as well. We were walking proximate to the chicken house when we heard a small, barely discernible “cheep, cheep” sound.
Our late afternoon stroll had led to the discovery of this single chick. Our precious new addition had hatched and somehow traveled three feet to the ground from the elevated coop above. Barely visible against the chicken wire background, a fluffy, ping pong ball sized baby bird sat hiding in the back corner of the chicken coop. We were all overjoyed by the extraordinary circumstances regarding this little chick’s arrival and quizzical migration, so “Wonder” became the most fitting name. None of the other eggs incubated, leaving Wonder as the only offspring. While the cycle of life is nothing short of a marvel, watching a patient, dedicated mother hen deprive herself of food and water to warm these seven eggs was inspiring. After weeks of dedication, her reward was a single chick. I found myself awed and inspired by a chicken and her offspring that summer day.
Once someone chances upon a sight or event which sparks a sense of wonder, one cannot help but notice the many wonders which can be experienced once the blinders of life are lifted. Other wonders began to be impressed upon me:
- The way sunlight filters through the leaves of trees and the shadows cast
- Sunlight refracted off the water, shimmering like millions of sparkling gems
- Watching children play and enter a world we cannot see or understand as adults
- The first sip of coffee on a cold winter’s morning
- The snow on the peaks of mountains in the middle of summer
- The leaves cascading down as if raining orange and yellow
- Sowing the seeds that provide sustenance for loved ones
- A sunrise or sunset, given just for our pleasure
- Spring peepers making their first peep of the season
- Being moved to tears by music, dance, theater or art
- The generosity of a friend providing a meal
Even as I write now, the sun is tenderly warming my skin like a gentle, loving hand. And there will be more wonders recorded as the seasons change.
Wonder surrounds us in this life. The miracle of wonder, I believe, also awaits us in the afterlife.
Finding Healing through Wonder
My newfound appreciation of wonder timed itself perfectly with other parts of my life that were difficult. I began to realize that the wonder I could find in my backyard could also emerge through the pains of heartache. For 6 1/2 years my mother had been battling terminal lung cancer. My mom’s battle with cancer had taken a hard toll on my soul following month after month of processing, visiting, assisting, and sharing more of my heart; not to mention the roller coaster ride of diagnoses, small victories, and side effects of chemotherapy. To watch someone I love suffer is the most difficult thing I have ever had to endure. However, as I continue to walk through this difficult journey called grief, one of the things I have come to learn is the pain I feel now is rooted in the joy I experienced with her while she was alive. C.S. Lewis famously commented about this difficult relationship that pain and happiness share after loss. From the depths of pain also come the greatest highs. How blessed I am to have known her!
Some of my favorite moments with her came after her diagnosis: holding her hand in front of a shimmering lake, experiencing hundreds of tiny coquina clams digging in the sand next to our feet by the shore, the authentic conversations in her front yard. It’s amazing how much we appreciate someone when we realize our days with them are limited. Also, in an eternal sense she beat cancer by how she lived; refusing to give into self-pity and instead, choosing to live with grace. Although frail and weak, she continued to cook meals for her family (her love language), up until her last month on earth. This perspective has brought me great amounts of awe and wonder as I ponder the legacy and the love that remains.
Wonder was created for our joy and our comfort. A friend reminded me yesterday that there are many kinds of grief: the grief following the death of a dream, the death of an unborn child, the death of a marriage, the end of a relationship with a parent as we have known it, the death of a spouse, parent, child, sibling, grandparent, relative, friend. Almost 200 years ago John Watson wrote “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Human pain, both physical and emotional is inevitable, and timeless. Even Jesus wept, as is recorded in John Chapter 11.
Wonder exists even among great loss, but only if we seek it. Wonder can be a great comfort for us through unthinkable pain.
The Science of Wonder
Wonder is like a balm for the hurting human soul. There are four major chemicals in the brain that influence our sense of happiness (DOSE) (Buckner, 2017):
- Dopamine, affects emotions and sensations of pleasure and pain. Dopamine is responsible for the good feeling we experience from the anticipation of an event (e.g. children anticipating Christmas, adults enjoying the anticipation of a vacation sometimes more than the vacation itself);
- Oxytocin, responsible for the “wonder” experiences we have with another human being (cuddling, hand-holding);
- Serotonin, which is a considered our natural mood stabilizer and is stimulated by sunlight (hence my reference to my skin being warmed by a gentle Hand); and
- Endorphins, which help relieve pain and induce feelings of pleasure or euphoria. Endorphins are naturally produced through group exercise, smelling vanilla or lavender, laughter, music, and chocolate.
One does not need to turn to artificial means to become “high” when an inherent cocktail has been provided to soothe our pain. Appreciating, recording and engaging in activities that produce in us a sense of wonder are some of the ways to naturally produce these feel good chemicals. Memories of childhood wonder come to mind: waking up on Christmas morning, watching fireworks, running barefoot in the grass. The same chemicals that elicited joy in these moments can help us as adults when the trials of life become too difficult to bare.
The very act of recording “wonders” can create new neural pathways in the brain, pathways in which gratitude and joy are experienced instead of anxiety, fear, anger and depression. Journaling about wonder and gratitude can be a natural antidepressant because it sparks the production of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, thereby facilitating feelings of contentment (Fletcher, 2017). Journaling has changed my life by providing me with an outlet for difficult feelings and working through those feelings. Journaling has also enabled me to look at trials through a lens of gratitude. Almost any trial can be reframed to find something positive, or at the very least an opportunity for growth. Through journaling, I consciously make a choice to reframe my mom’s death into something positive: she is not in pain anymore, and she has left a legacy of generosity, strength and courage behind. Oh, and I can just imagine the wonders she is experiencing now! The hope of being reunited with her someday also stirs within my soul the most amazing sense of wonder.
Our brains are hard-wired for wonder. You might even say that we were created with a natural means of soothing ourselves when the storms of life inevitably hit.
To be “real” and admit we are hurting is something our culture has pushed out of social mores. A common response to “how are you” is “fine.” We struggle to push past the superficial. The way I see it, as a hurting people we have some choices to make:
- We have a choice to turn a blind eye to someone that is hurting or be the brave one that asks, “how are you really?” There are precious few willing to walk alongside someone that is grieving. We have an opportunity to be a part of the precious few.
- We have a choice to answer “fine” or risk connecting with another soul that is hurting. Human deep soul connection is another Wonder of the world.
- We have a choice to bury the pain into the recesses of our mind or acknowledge that to heal from grief, we must first actively deal with it. Real healing from any wound is arduous and painful.
- We have a choice to lay down and fall into the fetal position and give into all that is wrong and sad in the world, or to revel in the wonder that has been offered. Anne Frank wrote the following while in hiding: “I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature, and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you and be happy (Frank, 1952).”
A sense of wonder is available to us at any time, we just have to make a conscious choice to appreciate, record and allow ourselves to be captivated by it.
As Ravi Zacharias in Recapture the Wonder so eloquently puts it, “there are moments in life when every sense is stimulated, almost like a convergence of all that is true and good and beautiful, when we wish we could freeze the moment and make it last forever. We must savor the delicacies that have been prepared for the imagination and the mind” (Zacharias, 2003).
All things truly can work together for our good. Even amidst great loss, wonder is found: in the birth of a baby chic, being swept away in worship, or within the magnificence of a sunset... The challenge is to intentionally allow our entire being to be blessed by its benefits. Wonder can be channeled through many different avenues, including but not limited to journaling, prayer, worship, reflection, meditation, yoga, nature, and connection with others. Vulnerability and intentional effort are required to find and enjoy wonder; however, the hard work involved is far outweighed by the joy to be found.
Buckner, Clark. “4 Chemicals that Activate Happiness and How to Gamify Them.” Technology Advice. October 30, 2017.
Fletcher, Emily. “The Neuroscience of Gratitude.” Huffpost. December 6, 2017
Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. Doubleday and Company, 1952.
Zacharias, Ravi. Recapture the Wonder. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003. Print.
Wonder-ful is a collection of gifts designed to help us appreciate, and be comforted by the Wonders that have so graciously been provided. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Hope for Justice, a non-profit organization that tackles slavery around the world.
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