Bob Schwartz

Tag: wonder

A Sense of Wonder: The Greatest Research Question Ever

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel

As part of its epic Religious Landscape Study, the Pew Research Center asked Americans what may be the greatest research question ever: How frequently do you feel a sense of wonder about the universe?

Possible responses were: At least once a week; Once or twice a month; Several times a year; Seldom/never; Don’t know. The results were analyzed and reported according to a variety of factors, including by religious group, generation, gender, race, ethnicity, immigrant status, income, education, marital status, belief in God, frequency of prayer, frequency of meditation, belief in heaven and hell, party affiliation, and many more. The results were also reported by state.

Within religious traditions, the highest percentage of those who feel a weekly sense of wonder about the universe are Jehovah’s Witness (62%), Muslim (56%) and Buddhist (55%). The highest percentage for seldom or never are Historically Black Protestant (29%), Catholic (27%) and Mainline Protestant (25%).

Among the states, the people of Nevada (54%) and Arizona (53%) lead the nation in weekly wonder, with Oregon (51%) and New Mexico (50%) not far behind. Delaware has the distinction of having the lowest percentage of people who feel a sense of wonder once a week (37%). The state with the highest percentage of people who seldom or never feel a sense of wonder is Alabama (34%).

This is just one of the many questions that Pew and other researchers ask about religious beliefs, attitudes and practices. What makes this one question so special?

It gets to the heart of what makes religion and spirituality so essential. Whatever your beliefs, whatever your status, and whatever your experience, this is what you should have learned by now—or eventually will: We are part of the universe, not masters of it, even if our ego, power and learning lead us to believe otherwise. Wonder is the acknowledgment and realization of that.

How frequently do you feel a sense of wonder about the universe?






Diminished Capacity for Wonder

“Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away.”

This from David von Drehle in Time, about the end of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years:

Though it might sound quaint, there was a time when people could be astonished.

Before super­computers fit into shirt pockets and Presidents tweeted. Before moving pictures were beamed through the air. Before moving pictures.

Not only could people be astonished—they enjoyed it. Loved it enough to pay for it. And so businesses sprang up to meet the demand. The astonishment industry was called the circus.

And what an industry it was. Picture yourself in a quiet American town of ordinary people doing nothing even remotely astonishing. One day, a couple of strangers show up with handbills and paste to cover the town with circus posters. SEE the fearless lion tamer. THRILL to the death-defying wire walkers. GASP at the woman on the flying trapeze. Your brain did the rest. By the time the circus arrived via boxcar or truck, you were desperate to have your mind blown. Elephants—real, live elephants, thousands of miles from Africa or India—pulled the ropes to raise the tents. Inside you would see a man ordering tigers around, women poised on the backs of cantering horses, human pyramids walking on high wires with nothing to catch them if they fell.

On May 21, the most famous circus of all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, will end its 146-year run, not with a whimper or a bang but mostly a shrug. Death has been a long time coming. A company press release put much of the blame on the recent decision, made under pressure from animal-rights groups, to stop using elephants as performers. But in fact, the Greatest Show on Earth has been headed for this day since the 1950s, when the same force that killed vaudeville—television—drove the storied operation out of its vast canvas big tops and into ho-hum auditoriums and arenas….

Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away. Sex is everywhere, and entertainment is on demand. Nostalgic parents have been struggling for a couple of decades to hide their disappointment from their children after seeing what the circus has become: a deafening soundtrack of recorded music backing a dull program punctuated by strobe lights, foreshortened performances cut to Internet attention spans, a rip-off of $6 sno-cones and $20 flashlights.

Meanwhile, the children have been struggling to understand why their parents would care. Nothing can compete with the circus that they hold in the palms of their hands.

I saw a lot of things at the circus. I saw a man shot out of a cannon, and much more. I was little and could not imagine all the things I would later see—in the world, in my mind, on a screen. We don’t always recognize the things that shape and twist us. Maybe the circus gets some of the blame or credit. Either way, it was wonder full.

What Is So Wonderful About Climbing Mount Everest?

Hotel Mount Everest

Climbing Mount Everest is special. Unless you’re from Tibet:

Human beings are capable of so much endeavor, even in small matters. People spend their lives trying to measure the height of mountains or the depth of the sea. These provide useful information, but they may not prove significant in the long run. For example, we Tibetans could never understand why people climbed mountains for no reason. The mountaineers would say, “I am doing an expedition on Mount Everest,” as if it were the most important thing in the world. They would spend so much time and money; they would even risk, and sometimes lose, their lives. We would wonder if they were mad, and ask, “What do you get when you reach the top?” They replied, “Oh, it is just wonderful!” We would say, “What is so wonderful in that cold wind?” The answer was, “Oh, it is so exciting!” It might seem wonderful, but it will only last a short time, and it is only wonderful if you consider it wonderful. Someone else might think that the most wonderful thing is being curled up, warm and snug, in a cozy bed. To me, for instance, that is much more wonderful.

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche in Radical Compassion: Shambhala Publications Authors on the Path of Boundless Love. Available free.