The managing editor of a Canadian student newspaper recently 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 my focus.
I thought long and hard. 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. Here’s the message it came up with:
“You should be open to experiencing amazement, wonder and awe, in as many situations and as often as possible”.
I’m hoping from such experiences we will again be open to re-enchantment of the world, by which I mean see beyond its immediate physical reality to the mysteries at its core.
In musing about what constitutes that mystery, I often think of my ‘ant theory’. In the Northern Territory of Australia there are giant anthills, all built along the Earth’s magnetic lines. The ants which inhabit them perceive their ant world, but have no idea of the immensely larger world we inhabit and know, and of which they are a part. I think of us as the ants of the universe in that we likewise don’t know what is beyond our knowing.
A sense of connection with nature and the natural is important in generating experiences of amazement, wonder and awe. For me, it comes from seeing a sparkling, dew-encrusted spider web on my front terrace in Montreal, or watching a large flock of rainbow lorikeets squabbling over the gum blossoms in Sydney.
It can also come from mind-boggling scientific discoveries, such as 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 pondering that life’s infinite variety emerges from just the four nucleic acids that make up DNA.
I believe 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 it’s a religious sacred, for others a secular sacred. Either way, it refers to those physical and metaphysical entities we must not destroy but hold in trust for future generations.
In talking about the ‘secular’ sacred, I am proposing that the sacred is not only a concept that applies in a religious context, but also one that operates at a general societal level. Those of all religions and none can endorse this concept. This shared value might allow us to cross some of the values divides in the current culture wars between those who espouse ‘progressive’ values and those who espouse ‘conservative’ ones.
Amazement, wonder and awe are not necessarily experienced in that order. They are 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 whether people will practice them. I regard such cynicism as extremely dangerous. 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. Experiencing amazement, wonder and awe can generate hope.
In the last few decades, we have recognised our physical ecosystem is not indestructible. Indeed, it is vulnerable, and can be irreparably damaged. We’ve realised 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 which we form our society. Holding our metaphysical ecosystem on trust will require wisdom, wise ethical restraint and courage on all our parts, both young and old.
We must all become involved in exercising that enormous privilege and obligation to maintain our values and protect what is valuable – in becoming fully human, whatever our age and our path in life and wherever it takes us. There is no more worthwhile, important or exciting challenge. That will require the courage to enter into respectful dialogue among all of us, whether we have ‘conservative’ values or ‘progressive’ ones.
Professor Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Her most recent book is Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars.