I don’t want this blog to suggest that I don’t believe there is any good to the American Evangelical(ish) Church. I have serious problems with it, it’s true, but I also am glad that I was a part of it for the time that I was. I learned lots of important things. I was treated with a respect that astounded my awkward, adolescent self. I was socialized into a world that focused on loving and serving others. These are all really unapologetically Good Things. This is about one of the best Good Things that I experienced.
When I was in high school my youth group studied a book called Dangerous Wonder by Michael Yaconelli. I don’t think reading this book changed my life but it did give both a language to and a defense of the kind of life I was already living. The book’s chapters give you an idea of the content: Risky Curiosity, Wild Abandon, Daring Playfulness, Wide-eyed Listening, Irresponsible Passion, Happy Terror, Naive Grace, and Childlike Faith. Doesn’t that all sound so delicious? It makes me want to go do something ridiculous and fun, like play badminton with a pig.
The book basically asserts that maintaining childlike (but not childish) qualities in your adult life makes you a happier and more spiritually connected person. I think that’s basically correct. I mean, this morning I filled my pockets with marshmallows before going to work. Do you think that made my day better or worse? Definitely better, though maybe in a distressingly linty way.
I’m definitely prone to childlike flights of fancy. I still climb things and jump off with the exact same relish that I did twenty years ago. I really like petting zoos (especially the goats). I love the part of my job that involve filling and dumping buckets of water, spraying things with the hose, and mixing up solutions with a great big spoon because playing around with water, for me, is infinitely fascinating. I skip rocks, feed ducks, and draw in the gravely sand of our little shoreline. Basically if I’ve got a little time to waste and nobody is going to be put out by my behavior, I can be hard to tell from a eight-year-old. Playing around like this relieves stress and keeps me grounded in the material world. When I get all worked up over things and the inside of my head is like, “Bills! Career Development! Mortality! Responsibility!” this playful side of me can be like, “Calm down. Look. Ducks.” And before I know it I’m chucking stale rolls and quacking back at them and feeling much, much better.
Another aspect of children that I never really left behind, and in fact, found encouraged in my college years, was the willingness to sit and really look at something. Many adults don’t seem to have the patience to observe something for any length of time* but I find exercises in observation very enlightening. I love watching birds: the flit and flicker of the chickadee; the broody, chicken-like gait of the mourning dove; the heavy, churning wing beats of a red-tailed hawk. Common and uncommon alike, birds are a joy to watch. Fish too. A common summer amusement is hanging my head off the side of the dock to watch pinky-sized minnows, darting perch, and some huge slow-moving monster of a fish that I’ve yet to identify generally go about their fishy business.
In my freshman year of college there was a practice of giving students a whole, dead fish and scalpel and letting them, “figure out how a fish works.” This is not a bad introduction to the observational and inferential skills needed to be a good scientist but as a vegetarian, I balked at the task. Instead, for three days of class, I watched a fish tank of minnows. Just watched them. I didn’t experiment on them. I didn’t have any questions about them to answer. I didn’t interact with them at all. Just watched. It was fascinating. I could watch how they moved each of their fins and how this changed their locomotion. They sometimes fought each other, why? They would come together in a little school they suddenly disperse, how did they communicate this to each other? Could I tell their sex or age from their physical characteristics or their behavior? Did they know they were in a tank? Was this uncomfortable to them? The world around us is really quite fascinating.
I find that when I take a little time to watch my co-habitators it reminds me how good it is to be in a place where you belong- the fish in the lake, the bird on the branch, the chipmunk on the lawn, and me in my house. It reminds me how good it is to fill your belly with nourishing food. It reminds me that it is good to stretch out in the sun, make good use of your health and strength, and have a place to snuggle down in at night.
When this course was being taught in my youth group I remember a particular story told by my youth minister to illustrate the quality of wonder. He related how once, waiting for a class to start, he was absent-mindedly peeling and eating an orange. It was just a plain orange, or so he thought, until he went from looking at the orange to really seeing the orange. “It’s full of tiny juice boxes!” he said, “You can pull them apart and hold the world’s tiniest juice box on your fingertip! And there are hundreds in each and every orange!” I didn’t appreciate the story at the time, being an ardent hater of oranges, but I never forgot it. When I peeled an orange for my lunch today, and every time I eat an orange, I think about this story. I appreciate anew how surprisingly and deliciously well an orange is put together.
I think a good deal of the quality of wonder is being connected with your senses and allowing your senses time to take in the world without passing judgement. I love cooking because it is basically an exercise in thrilling your senses. Good food tastes and smells savory, it is visually pleasing in color and arrangement, and must have the appropriate texture. There are even some sounds that enter into into culinary pursuits, I always listen for the the tinny ping of newly processed jars of preserves as they cool and suck down the safety button of their lids. Don’t you love the short fuzz of peaches? The incomparably luxurious richness of not-quite-set yolks? The crackly crunch of fresh bread crusts? Taking pleasure in our daily bread seems a necessary antidote to the crushing amount of ingratitude that Americans are taught as their heritage.
When I taste wine at my job I really get into it. I swirl it like a maniac and shove my nose way in the glass. I mean, I have to close my eyes because “shoving my nose way in” really means, “pressing the glass against my face and getting wine in my eyebrows.” But what smells come from this procedure! Banana. Pineapple. Tobacco. Sweat. Dried cherries. Roses. Sumac. Cinnamon. Burning leaves. Wet leaves. Toast. Movie popcorn. Cooked eggs. Raspberries. Burnt matches. Vanilla. Dust. Strawberries. Cream. Wine is little more than Welch’s that’s undergone a controlled spoilage but there are layers of deliciousness (and sometimes not so delicious) that go all the way down. Even when a wine isn’t perfectly delicious, it is almost always interesting. If you lack a willingness to satisfy your senses you won’t ever extract much pleasure from wine except in over-indulgence.
We have no choice, if we want to live, but to eat. So many people find themselves capable of joys at the table, but no capacity for joy further from their board. That’s too bad. Many things are worth wondering about. Shadows. Leaves. Bugs. Knots. Flame. Flowers. I generally believe that getting all up in the business of the things around you is an excellent way to understand and to more fully appreciate your surroundings. You should be quiet and listen. Run things between your fingers. Get your face right up into things and look at them. Smell them. Hold things up to your ears.
Cultivating in ourselves the best qualities of children should be a practice of all adults, not just Christians. I appreciate that I was taught that seeking to understand and take pleasure in the world around me was worthwhile, even though it often takes shapes that are less formal than one might expect of adults. I think we would all be much happier if we took pleasure in trout and oranges over institutional power and greediness. Let’s focus on the joys before us today rather than wiling away our attention and efforts on “winning the future”. Dangerous, daring, and risky people are able to look to today, not tomorrow, for their riches.
*I think this is directly linked to the number of Apple products in your home. Since there is only .5 Apple products per adult in my household I believe this leaves us basically unharmed. General Luddite-ism also works as an inoculant to the refusal-to-just-sit-down-and-have-a-good-look issues so rampant today.