Wonder

We sometimes assume we know ourselves, but in fact we know only how we appear from a limited perspective. One cannot know oneself until he looks at himself through both a prism and a magnifying glass. Even then, we cannot see ourselves through others’ eyes. Our self-knowledge, then, is based on an incomplete and distorted perspective. Am I the person I see in the mirror and whose brain harbors every thought that crosses my mind? Or am I the man seen through another’s eyes and who reacts to the world around him in response to how I think I look to someone else? Can I accurately predict how I might react to a situation in which a stranger flashes a gun and begins shooting indiscriminately at people all around me? Can I accurately predict how I might react to the same situation but, instead of a stranger, the person with the weapon is someone I know well? So many questions, the answers to which cannot be known until after the fact. Even then, though, predicting what we will do in specific circumstances, based on how well we know ourselves, is a crapshoot. We do not necessarily know ourselves as well as we may think. We are unpredictable. That can be an attractive attribute. Or it can be terrifying.

I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?

~ Zhuangzi ~

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The reason stars and planets are spherical, according to my limited understanding of physics, is that an object’s gravitational pull draws toward the center of its mass. If sufficiently large—like stars and planets—objects exert gravity strong enough to cause it to reach hydrostatic equilibrium. That is the point at which gravity is balanced by a pressure-gradient force—that state in which an object’s tendency to expand is restricted by its own gravitational pull. My knowledge of hydrostatic equilibrium did not exist when I went to bed last night, nor when I awoke this morning; it came to inhabit my brain only after I consulted reliable—I hope—online sources. I did not need to know why celestial bodies (and the planet on which I live) are spherical. But for some reason, not long after I woke, I suddenly was consumed by a strong curiosity about the matter. I suspect the reason had something to do with stumbling upon an image of innumerable white dots against a black background—an artist’s rendering of the glow of stars and planets against the darkness of space.

As I think about my curiosity this morning, it occurs to me that the thirst for answers competes with the sense of wonder that goes hand in hand with the appreciation of mystery. Looking into a clear, dark night sky, untainted by humans’ light pollution, engenders awe at the sheer beauty and vastness of the universe. Even absent that crystal clear view, a look skyward launches an immeasurable sense of both curiosity and humility. Billions of humans have had the experience of wonder at the immensity of the universe. As unique as the experience feels, it is common; not unique at all. But it feels intensely private, as if no one else could possibly feel the almost overwhelming sense of awe that accompanies a long, deep look into the dark sky. The pursuit of understanding—and the reliance on the laws of physics as a means of achieving it—need not diminish the emotional experience of awe. But keeping understanding and awe in separate compartments in one’s brain just might allow both experiences to reach their fullest potentials. However, as I consider how young children of 5 or 7 or 9 years of age seem to demonstrate both, simultaneously, I wonder whether adults simply lose the ability to reconcile competing experiences. I will continue to wonder, inasmuch as I hold out no hope that I will ever know the answer.

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The benefits of youth are sometimes under-appreciated until they suddenly are snatched away. Yet those benefits could have been so much more enriching and fulfilling, had they existed earlier—in concert with the wisdom attainable only through sufficient experience which comes only with advancing age. What, exactly, is fairness? It depends on one’s perspective. One thing about fairness is clear, though: it is not a birthright.

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I have few obligations today that cannot be adjusted. I will use that flexibility to imagine a twenty minute experience. A flight of fancy. An imaginary trip through a delightful future.  Ah, yes. I can see it now.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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