In late September, I attended the Kansas Book Festival and heard poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil speak about “the place of wonder in day-to-day contemporary American life.” Her talk entitled, “I Wonder, Wonder, Wonder” spoke to the need to be often in awe of the world around us. I left this talk pondering the necessity of wonder in our lives.
Nezhukumatathil began by inviting her listeners to remember our childhood wonder of fireflies—the joy and excitement of watching the night aglow with brilliant rhythmic light. As adults, Nezhukumatathil noted, we tend to lose that ability to be so easily moved to wonder. And yet, recovering wonder is necessary because, “without wonder, we lose the ability to imagine lives and hearts different from us.”
It turns out that research agrees. According to an August 2021 article in Harvard Business Review, the feeling of awe was discovered to promote “unselfing,” where a person sees himself or herself as “smaller” in the grand scheme of things. And wonder has further benefits. As researchers David P. Fessell and Karen Reivich explain, “As you tap into something larger and your sense of self shrinks, so too do your mental chatter and your worries. At the same time, your desire to connect with and help others increases. People who experience awe also report higher levels of overall life satisfaction and well-being.”
Nezhukumatathil shared another aspect of wonder: that “allowing yourself to wonder puts you in a state of vulnerability,” which is perhaps why wonder becomes harder as we move into adulthood. And yet, even among children, there are in some ways less opportunities for wonder, due to how we currently live in relationship to nature.
Nezhukumatathil recalled teaching a kindergarten class about fireflies. She came to discover that seventeen of the twenty-two students had never seen one. The reason for this lack of experience is myriad, but a few reasons Nezhukumatathil pointed out are technology, which leads to more sedentary and indoor experiences; our lack of knowledge about the natural world (she mentioned that not many of us learn the names of plants and trees or know there are so many different types of fireflies); and the fact that there are fewer fireflies now due to environmental degradation and light pollution, which affect the rhythm of their light.
When we lose wonder, we lose empathy—an ability to relate to people living different lives than we are, an ability to see our connection to the natural world. “When you make wonder a habit,” Nezhukumatathil said, “you feel less alone.” Fessell and Reivich agree. They note that awe’s ability to connect us to others “also helps us build relationships. Though feeling awe frequently happens in solitude, it draws us out of ourselves and toward others and inspires pro-social behavior like generosity and compassion.”
So how to cultivate wonder in our current cultural moment, which is marked by intense stress and heartache? Both Nezhukumatathil and the researchers at HBR noted the trauma of the past year and how we need wonder all the more. Nezhukumatathil suggests asking yourself some questions–What do you love?“What do you fear?” “What are five things you wonder about?”--and then sharing your answers with others.
She also recommends making time in one’s day for wonder. Noting how her parents enjoyed the shared task of cultivating a garden, Nezhukumatathil recalled seeing first-hand what it was for her father to get excited about tomato plants and his delight in pointing out different plants and their names to her. She also acknowledged that her parents cultivated wonder in her through sharing something that brought them joy.
Nezhukumatathil’s own wonder toward the natural world led her to write World of Wonders, a book of poetic essays that weave together exploration of different plants and animals as well as Nezhukumatahil’s own life and family history. Like her parents’ garden, this book invites others to share in Nezhukumatathil’s experiences of awe.
As we work to recultivate our own sense of wonder, consider: What is it that excites you? What activities make you feel more alive when you engage in them? If you’re unsure, ask others what fills them with joy. Ask them to show you. Nezhukumatathil recommends asking a lot of questions and being curious about others and the world around us. Like Nezhukumatathil, I believe that “if wonder becomes a habit, we can set the pattern for a more just and tender world.”