The Virtue of Wonder: Loving Beauty but Not Bombs

Can the stars in the sky, the intricacies of the human brain, or the impressive performance of a talented individual enhance our ability to care for our children, be a good friend, or relate to our actual or imagined “enemies” peacefully rather than violently? I think yes.

The virtue of wonder—a habit of amazement, reverence, awe, and curiosity—is essential to love. And we love by giving but also receiving.

Gratitude is a receptive virtue, helping us appreciate the various kinds of gifts we’ve received. Humility is a receptive virtue, loving others by welcoming and celebrating their contributions to us and others. Wonder, also, is a receptive virtue. Wonder helps us notice and savor the goodness and beauty in others and in the world.

Without wonder, it becomes easier to disregard the sacredness of things, from the earth to my child. I am prone to plunder or abuse something that I see as “mine” rather than steward something given to me as a gift.

Without wonder, it becomes easier to disregard those with needs I could possibly meet. Such needs become nuisances, inconveniences, or “not my problem” rather than openings for my compassionate and constructive participation.

Without wonder, it becomes easier to condone or shrug in apathy about a bomb being dropped on others, even if we have embraced a narrative that says some people have crossed the (arbitrary) line into being so villainous that they no longer have value and have become, like far too many of the things we use in our daily life, disposable.

Cultivating a virtue or habit of wonder is one (but not the only) antidote to violence.

Wonder highlights what is good, just because it is. I do not marvel at my children because of the favors they do for me but because of their inherent value. They are valuable because they are humans. They are valuable because they are unique humans. They are valuable because they are, to an extent, mine, even if so possessive a term should always be used carefully, lest in my mind I become the center and they the supporting cast, rather than “centers” in their own right.

Wonder values the contributions of everyone. No voice is meaningless but spoken by God-created, God-treasured, God-sustained creatures.

Wonder expands us. We can wonder at something, moved by it whether or not we understand it. We can also wonder what something is and why it is, modeled well for us by the inquisitive urgency of children. While we can probably “know too much,” curiosity about others and the world can facilitate love. Accepting my present knowledge or interpretation of events as sufficient closes me off to others. An appropriate discontent with my present understanding invites others to make their contributions. Humility and wonder are thus related: we accept others’ help because we revere and respect them and the value of what they have to say.

Wonder, while it is attuned to extremes, is not simply about size. Absent of goodness or beauty, the “really big” and the “really small” might be impressive but do not facilitate love. We might marvel at the size of a bomb but we ought to be horrified by it. The dropping of a large bomb requires exorbitant funding that could have been redirected to alleviate the suffering of many. Bombs kill people who hope, wish, strive, laugh and love, just like you and me, even if they’ve been lured in, out of desperation or misinformation or necessity, by a destructive narrative. Such extermination does not deserve our wonder.

The failure to care for the impoverished and marginalized in our neighborhoods for the sake of supporting our violence abroad (or our violence at home, evidenced by our too-frequent prioritization of “my rights” over the common good such that guns are far too accessible) does not deserve our wonder.

Violence in any form—whether bullets fired at an enemy or my own degrading and dismissive words hurled at those I love the most—signifies a lack of wonder. Wonder does not write people off. Wonder does not label or pre-judge in a way that ignores the real, actual, complexly-motivated, uncategorizable person in front of us.

When we lose wonder, we lose the ability to receive what goodness others might offer, just by being who they are. We shortchange ourselves. We shortchange others. We forget the sacredness of all life.

There are reasonable arguments for why violence is sometimes necessary. What bothers me about all of them is not too unlike the kind of anxiety I feel about the choices I make now. If I don’t put things away when I’m done with them, and I do this repeatedly, I will form a habit of not putting things away that leads to chaos and clutter and the inability to find things when I need them.

Similarly, If I act violently now, even if I can offer intelligent justifications for it, how easy will it be to act with similar violence in the future? And you don’t need a gun to be violent, of course. Words (or silence) can be violent. Violence begets violence, not just in the form of retaliation from others but through the cultivation of ugly habits in ourselves.

Wonder is not the only antidote to violence, but it might be one. Cultivating the habit of saying “wow”—appreciating both what is extraordinary and what is most ordinary—can help us on the way to love.

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