My state of general wonder
“Not until years later would I realize that my state of general wonder throughout this process, peppered though it was with fear and doubt, would help preserve my sanity through the events that followed.” — Hilary Tindle
Sometimes I will hear or read a sentence that rings so true in my own experience that I feel I could have written it myself. That was how I felt when I read Dr. Tindle’s words quoted above. She was describing the open heart surgery she underwent as a young woman, long before she became a physician herself. When she sought medical help for what she thought was a routine complaint about feeling tired, she was shocked to be told that she had lived all her life with an undiscovered, life-threatening congenital heart defect that required immediate correction.
What Tindle describes as a “state of general wonder” has been a powerful ally for me. In fact, at 61 years and counting, I think that one of the best metaphors for my life is an image of myself being perched on a three legged stool. One leg would be fear and doubt, one would be conviction and determination, and one would be pure wonder, the memories of which go back at least as far as any others I can remember. Though that three-legged stool sits on the firm foundation of faith and trust, each of those three legs are closely related to the foundation, and have been integral to my existence.
The fear and doubt have forced me to rely upon what meager courage and critical thinking I can muster. As with any skill, these traits grow stronger with use, even when they start in complete inadequacy. The conviction and determination have enabled me to keep going even when I thought I would never last. But the wonder is arguably the best of all: a source of refreshment and delight, making it all worthwhile. Even in the worst situations, some part of my mind is awed by the complexity of human survival, and inspired by glimpses of grace and courage that hardly anyone else will ever know about.
I first noticed wonder partially offsetting my fear when Matt, as a tiny infant, had his first echocardiogram. The doctor was able to see and describe his beating heart (with large atrial and ventricular defects, and two bad valves) in amazing detail. Despite the dread of my baby’s impending open heart surgery, and our very reasonable fears for his life, there was a fascination of what might be possible that transcended the panic I felt. In a similar way, Matt’s developmental challenges opened my eyes to the stunning intricacy of “typical” early child development, which I had taken for granted with our first son. The therapeutic exercises and tasks that might have felt like drudgery became an absorbing new world to explore, and ordinary milestones became delayed but usually victorious crossings of one marathon finish line after another.
Despite the devastating sorrow of Jeff’s terminal diagnosis, and as painful as it was to watch all that he suffered, I was often carried away with wonder at his physical, spiritual and mental stamina. My awe of his exceptional nature has only grown over time, as moments that were lost to conscious awareness during times of urgency and crisis come back to me now in vivid detail, often without warning. These “flashback” experiences, which I imagine are common among survivors of anyone who fought a hard battle over several years, continue to flood me with grief and panic. But tucked amid the anguish and anxiety, there sparkles the ever-growing wonder at how blessed I was to be married to such an extraordinary person for all those years.
Wonder is not limited to traumatic situations, of course– and how thankful I am for the everyday moments that surprise me with humor, joy, beauty or mystery. The ability to notice and marvel at magnificent details, cleverly disguised as normal aspects of ordinary life, is a skill that most of us are born with, I believe. Just watch any toddler closely and you’ll see what I mean. But sadly, we often fail to cultivate that trait as assiduously as we do the more prestigious or marketable talents, and it tends to atrophy as we age.
Dr. Tindle is right, though– wonder is a sanity-preserver in bad times, and multiplies our happiness in good times. I encourage you to incorporate into each day a few moments to exercise your “state of general wonder.” Besides being good for you, it’s fun and remarkably easy, once you get the hang of it. As Marlene says, I wish you a wonder-filled day! Feel free to share some of your wondrous observations here.