Recently the managing editor of a Canadian student newspaper, Rebekah Hebbert (a young woman not unfamiliar to MercatorNet readers), sent me a rather daunting request: “If you had one message/piece of advice/warning for students, what would it be?” What on earth could be important enough to be that “one message”? I decided that what we all know to be important – family, friends, love, trust, loyalty, honesty and so on – should not be the focus of my message. So, I thought long and hard, but then, as I always do when faced with a complex and difficult decision, I decided to “trust my unconscious” – put the issue at the back of my mind and wait. (To do that, by the way, is my first piece of advice!) Here’s the message for students it came up with: You should be open to experiencing amazement, wonder and awe, in as many situations and as often as possible.
For me, such an experience can occur in a myriad of settings. For instance, on a calm, freezing winter night on seeing the full moon reflected in the Fleuve Saint Laurent, or, in early Spring, a sparkling, dew-encrusted spider web on my front terrace or a frozen raindrop on a small blade of grass on the river bank. It can come, in an instant, when watching a video resulting from pointing the Hubble Space Telescope at a seemingly blank patch of sky and detecting over three thousand galaxies at the edge of the universe, each one containing billions of stars. Or it can slowly emerge in musing on how beautiful my cats’ movements are, hearing about startling new scientific research results that provide hitherto unimaginable insights, or watching a ballet.
I believe that experiencing “amazement, wonder and awe” enriches our lives, can help us to find meaning, and can change how we see the world, the decisions we make, especially regarding values and ethics, and how we live our lives. It can put us in touch with the sacred – for some people that’s a “religious sacred”, for others a “secular sacred” – that to which we must not lay waste, but hold in trust for future generations.
I suggest that experiences of “amazement, wonder and awe” can also elicit an existential perception that differentiates those who have that experience from those who don’t in terms of what they regard as ethical or unethical. For instance, if we perceive the transmission of human life, the coming-into-being of a unique new human being, with “amazement, wonder and awe”, we are likely to see it as involving a mystery that must be respected, which will usually exclude abortion and certainly excludes infanticide. If we do not look at both the unborn child and the born one with amazement, wonder and awe just because they exist and do not perceive that mystery, we are much less likely to see abortion or, as has become apparent very recently, even infanticide, as morally and ethically unacceptable.
Valuing experiences of “amazement, wonder and awe”, and sometimes having them, can also cause us to choose differently, to rearrange our priorities, on a very everyday level, for instance, in relation to choosing our area of work. When we have a choice between taking a job in an area to which we are passionately committed — one where our heart is — and one in an area to which we are not committed, but pays much more money, we will be more likely to choose the former, if we want to maximize our chances of experiencing “amazement, wonder and awe”. We can’t manufacture these experiences, but our choices can make them more – or less – likely to occur.
I often think, “I can’t have been so lucky, as to have fallen into the work that I do.” I count as one of the major blessings in my life that, even after more than 30 years in the “same job”, almost every morning I walk into my office thinking “What ‘exciting’ experiences will I have today?” Let me explain, however, what I mean.
I place the words “same job” in quotes because in many ways my work is never the “same job”; it continues to evolve in unexpected, challenging and fascinating ways. I believe the possibility for such evolution is something to look for in making a lifetime commitment to a vocation, while keeping in mind that we can’t just sit back and expect that evolution to happen all by itself. To allow it to occur one must be alert to opportunities and open-minded about exploring them. And we need to take calculated risks and not expect upfront guarantees that all our endeavours will reward us, as we might hope they will. I have found that very often the requests that I receive to participate in various projects or events that I believe will be the most exciting and rewarding intellectually and emotionally are often not so, and some events that I reluctantly participate in out of a sense of obligation are such. As a result of this experience, on occasion, I have advised young people to consider accepting a position that does not fit exactly what they believe they want – or deserve – and to see where they can direct it, so as to create new opportunities for themselves. The results are sometimes very surprising and rewarding.
I’ve also placed the word “exciting” in quotes, because I’m using it to cover a very broad range of both positive and negative experiences, both our successes and our mistakes and failures, whether personal, professional, intellectual, emotional or spiritual: we can learn and grow as persons from all of them. I like Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “It’s not your failures that count; it’s what you do with them”. We should not be surprised or depressed by our failures, although, as I well know, sometimes, it can be difficult not to be. That is no way meant to say that we should not take our mistakes seriously and try to avoid the same ones in the future.
To have one’s heart, mind and soul engaged by one’s work, to be excited and fulfilled by what one does, is indeed an extraordinary gift. To be able to be hopeful at the end of the day, that you might have made a tiny contribution to others and a better world is a true privilege. To have had a small, personal experience of the axiom that “one person can make a difference” gives meaning to one’s life and work. And that leads to my next point.
I wasn’t sure in which order to place the words “amazement, wonder and awe”, and in thinking about that I realized they were not necessarily a linear progression, but three different, although connected, entry doors into an experience of transcendence – the experience of feeling that you belong to something larger than just yourself and that what you do or don’t do matters, more than to just yourself.
Such experiences of transcendence can be a powerful antidote to cynicism, in particular, about whether values and ethics matter or will be implemented, in practice. I regard such cynicism as extremely dangerous, as, what I would call, a “secular mortal sin”. It could result in a future world in which no reasonable person would want to live. The antithesis of cynicism is hope, the oxygen of the human spirit. Without hope our human spirit dies; with it we can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Finally, a word that comes to mind is “gratitude”, for the capacity to experience awe, wonder and amazement. As far as we know, this is a uniquely human characteristic and, I believe, of the essence of our humanness. As such, we have obligations to future generations to hold that capacity and the situations that foster it on trust for them and, correlatively, obligations to avoid that which would harm it.
In the last few decades, we have recognized that our physical ecosystem is not indestructible – indeed, it is vulnerable, and can be irreparably damaged – and that we have obligations to future generations with respect to caring for it. The same is true of what we can call our metaphysical ecosystem – the values, principles, attitudes, beliefs, shared stories and so on, on the basis of which we form our society.
Holding our metaphysical ecosystem on trust will require wisdom, wise ethical restraint (the old virtue of prudence) and courage on all our parts, but especially young people, who will be the decision makers of the future and must be the “keepers of our values”. I urge you to become involved in exercising that enormous privilege and obligation, whatever your path in life and wherever it takes you. There is no more worthwhile, important or exciting challenge.
Margaret Somerville is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University. The above article was first published in the Prince Arthur Herald.