There is one avenue to my personal experience of wonder that is guaranteed: Yosemite National Park. I grew up less than an hour from the valley floor and spent many lazy Saturday afternoons dangling my feet in the Merced River, looking up at the massive granite walls of Half Dome and El Capitan, hypnotized by the waterfalls. No matter how many times I've been there--and there are far too many to remember--the experience has always taken my breath away. It never becomes familiar.
WHAT IS WONDER?
The celebrated twentieth-century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presents a twist on the Cartesian formula when he writes,
We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement. Rene Descartes himself said wonder is the "first of all passions." It's what floods us when we encounter something that's too much for our brains to process. We look up at the night sky, for example, and we're filled with awe. Why? If we're far enough from light pollution, the thousands upon thousands of points of light, each a star millions or billions of light years away, overwhelm us. Even for scientists who thoroughly understand what's happening and how the universe came to be like this, it provokes wonder.
Think of the look of surprise on a toddler's face as they explore the world around them. Every little thing is a brand new discovery. That expression of surprise and absolute delight is wonder. Wonder arrests us. It stops us in our tracks and demands almost worshipful attention. Indeed, throughout intellectual history, efforts to describe wonder are almost always tinged with religious, or at least spiritual, language. Descartes actually felt that wonder, while unavoidable, is an experience we should try to overcome by understanding the thing that at first surprises and amazes us. Wonder is the fire beneath curiosity, driving humanity to discovery. Today, most of us appreciate wonder as not only a motivation to deeper knowledge and understanding, but also as a positive motivation in its own right. Humans have a unique capacity to reflect on our thinking and feeling. Wonder takes us out beyond the mundanities of our daily lives and invites us to take in the big picture.
But how? Especially as mere mundanities become a matter of literal survival, how can we afford to chase fleeting, transcendent experiences? And why would we? There are so many more pressing things to accomplish before we find time to visit art museums, read poetry, or take languorous walks through gardens.
As we get older and have more experience with the world, wonder becomes harder to locate and even harder to sustain. We know the world isn't universally beautiful and unequivocally wonderful. The pressures of modern life crowd out these experiences. Society is organized around financial success, material accumulation, and positions of power, not experiences of beauty and awe. We run to keep up because falling behind can be deadly. Our expectations have fallen so low that many people aspire to simply avoid becoming homeless or dying without access to healthcare.
The early twentieth-century psychologist, researcher, and 1967 Humanist of the Year Abraham Maslow was curious about exactly these questions. He proposed that humans have a hierarchy of needs. At the most basic level are physiological needs such as the need for food, shelter, clothing, and sleep. At the second stage of Maslow's hierarchy are...