Wonder Years

Wonder Years

6 mins – Feynman, Campbell, and Kafka help us wonder where to go from here.

The memories of youth stay with us forever, and we long to tap back into those blissful ways of walking with wonder. Our day-to-day experiences were filled with aliveness, adventure, and originality. We engaged with the world as scientists, engineers, and artists. It was a time in our lives when we merely sought to relate ourselves to all the miracles around us. And then it began to fade. As we grew older, we began to give our imagination less value and space than it deserves. Our true instinct for what’s beautiful and awe-inspiring dissolves as we transition into adulthood. As adults, we question the significance of our inner-voice asking: “How could this be?” or “Why is this so?” The voice that begs us to discover the answers to our own curiosities, or search for clarity and possibilities. We do our best to suppress it as we grow older, and yet the voice only gets louder.

As Richard Feynman might ask: “What if we let go of erroneous ideas of what it means to do something worthwhile?” Following your curiosities beyond your “wonder years” may feel like traveling down a road to nowhere, on a path without promise. But what if every step holds possibility, and the mere act of taking the next step is inherently worth it? We’d move from a place of what we know to a place of what we might learn to know. We’d have to overcome the magnetic force of adulthood and social convention pulling us away from a place we want to be. Joseph Campbell explains this as the ordeal of acquiescing, where we move along quietly without progressing to the place we feel we need to be. To overcome this ordeal, we’d have to maintain the formidable path of progression and self development. But how could we ever know what’s worthwhile before we take the step towards the place we want to be, and walk into the realm of uncertainty?

Franz Kafka wrote a wonderful parable called Before the Law, and in it is a story of a man who seeks to walk through an open door but fails enter due to a large gatekeeper standing guard. The man looks up at the gatekeeper and asks for permission to walk through the door, and the gatekeeper explains that it’s not possible at this moment, but maybe later. The man peers through the open door as he wonders what he might encounter on the other side. The gatekeeper laughs at the man and dares him to try and walk through the door without his permission. Then the gatekeeper warns the man that beyond this door is another door with a gatekeeper much bigger and scarier than him, and further there are more doors with gatekeepers each more powerful than the last. The man thinks about this for a moment and decides to wait outside the door for a little while. This wait turns from days into years and the man continues to wonder what lies beyond the threshold. He proceeds to beg and bribe the gatekeeper to give him permission to walk through—but to no avail. Finally, the man is nearing the end of his life and with a final plea he asks the guard “How is it that after all these years no one else has requested permission to walk through this door but me? Everyone wants to walk through doors like this!” The gatekeeper kneels down to the old man and says: “This door was only meant for you, and because you no longer have the strength to walk through, I am going to close it.” This parable helps us understand that deciding not to act on our wonders is a choice, and the doors of mystery and inquiry that lead to clarity and understanding can be seen only through our own eyes. Taking a step through a door meant only for us is worthwhile as long as we see reality through a lens of wonder and curiosity. And since this lens tends to blur with age, the question becomes “How do we preserve it?”

What would it look like if our school systems actively engaged in preserving wonder? What if you could cultivate the practice of wonderment that lives beyond the wonder years? A culture where it’s normal for people to step beyond conventions in order to build the truth about their perceptions. Maybe you could foster a place where learners feel the urge to explore and the hunger to be moved. Where learners can express themselves today and find comfort in changing into a different someone tomorrow. In order to shape this type of environment, educators and administrators must establish a part of the learning experience—a sacred part—where learners can take accountability and ownership of their own journey. A break from the routine and orderly. A departure from the familiar and predictable. A time when learners are expected to follow their interests into the marvelous realm beyond the obvious way. A place where they can question what it is they don’t understand or believe in, and contemplate the values that will form their foundation.

You can build a sacred part of each learner’s journey right here, and with this community. Maybe it’s during a core class, or an elective class, or an after-school club. Let them create novelty, because when they do they’ll want to do it again. Over time, and well beyond their wonder years, learners will no longer need permission to wonder and act on something they care about. They’ll lead a life of intention and become an indispensable contributor to their workplace, their community, and their family. And when they see that opportunity beyond the threshold of uncertainty— they’ll wink at the guard as they walk through—and grow stronger with each stride as they devise their own destiny.


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