Post scriptum (2022, week 20) — How to revive your sense of wonder, harvesting the fruits of wonder, and Stoic cosmopolitism
Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s Post scriptum: We can all learn to rediscover the joys of wide-eyed discovery; wonder — the linchpin of inspiration and inquiry — makes humans unique; why Stoicism isn’t just about you; why success can feel so bitter; how self-help books use feel-good philosophy to turn our anxieties into our identity; navigating mysteries; a messy table, a map of the world; returning to Istanbul; and, finally, Wendell Berry and an economy also of return.
How to revive your sense of wonder
Humans grow up with a powerful drive to learn how things work and why certain patterns and properties exist in the world. Wonder, a word with multiple related meanings, has one sense that captures this desire to know.
“Sophisticated elements of wondering appear at an early age,” Frank Keil writes in How to revive your sense of wonder. “Around 40 years ago, a pair of British researchers, Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes, investigated children’s spontaneous questions, finding that children were asking them soon after they started using language. At first, the questions might be simple requests for the whereabouts of a favourite toy, but soon they were asking more ‘why’ questions, such as why some roofs are steeply slanted and others are not, why babies can’t drink really sweet drinks, and why you have to pay people money for doing things for you. More recent studies show that wonder expands greatly in power and scope in the preschool years, as children learn how to go deeper and deeper in their understanding of the hidden workings of things and learn how to rely upon the knowledge in other minds.
Around the time children enter classrooms, their spontaneous questions seem to plummet. Even worse, this abandonment of wonder can persist indefinitely. This decline happens at all levels of affluence and across diverse groups and cultures, leading some to worry that it is inevitable. Yet some people remain lifelong, joyful wonderers. What makes them able to sustain their wonder?”
Through his studies and countless discussions with researchers and notable wonderers, Keil has been able to collect a number of practical strategies that can help you revive your wonder and maintain it at levels that become so rewarding that they are self-sustaining. “Its presence in young children shows how intrinsic it is to being human. And wonder can continue to grow and expand for a lifetime,” he writes.
One strategy is to create a checklist for wondering (see the original article for a complete list of strategies).
“Checklists can be surprisingly useful for helping you engage effectively in a variety of desired activities — including wondering. Suppose you wonder about the costs and benefits of a particular public health intervention. Given that emotions can bias how we approach and value information, you might be especially vigilant by using a checklist with items such as the following:
- Did I consult at least three different sources? Did I make sure those three didn’t all get their information from one common source?
- Did I check the reputation of my sources by looking at their affiliations, their training and other indicators that they are respected for the quality of their views?
- Did the sources actually discuss any mechanisms involved (eg, how a vaccine works) in more than a hand-waving manner? Or did they rely more on personal anecdotes or opinions? Badly informed sources rarely dive deeply into mechanisms.
Depending on the subject of your wondering, the checklist might include different items. For instance, your checklist could ensure that you are taking into account your own cognitive biases, such as the tendency to seek out information that confirms your beliefs and to neglect information that challenges it. If these checks sound difficult, with a little practice, you’ll find that they are often surprisingly easy to do and can become automatic.
To foster more moments of wonder, upon encountering a new phenomenon that is puzzling, you might check how often you pursued the topic with a number of ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions instead of just seeking a simple answer. For example, upon learning about so-called ‘wood wide webs’ of fungi that link trees to each other, instead of simply asking when or by whom they were discovered, you might ask why trees form such communities or how those communities expand. Fact-seeking questions can be fruitful if they are used as launchpads for wondering, but not if they close down further enquiry because an ‘answer’ has been found.
These examples are not meant to be prescriptive, but rather to give a sense of how you might construct checklists that work best for you. One key constraint is to focus on wondering that seeks out the truth as opposed to fitting into an agenda or serving as a means to some other end.
The more you engage in wondering, the more you will ask why you haven’t wondered more in the past. Wondering deeply is one of the few activities in life in which you can acquire something of great value at little or no material cost — something that can continuously enrich how you experience the world going forward.”
How wonder works
Theories of a unique humanity have evolved enormously throughout history, with a significant tendency in recent times to diminish our claim to be truly distinctive. Still, most scientists and philosophers do believe that we are, in some sense, different from any other lifeform on the planet. But what sets us apart?
According to Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, our unique position among animals is rooted in a particular emotion that has long been overlooked: the emotion of wonder.
“Wonder is sometimes said to be a childish emotion, one that we grow out of. But that is surely wrong. As adults, we might experience it when gaping at grand vistas. I was dumbstruck when I first saw a sunset over the Serengeti. We also experience wonder when we discover extraordinary facts. I was enthralled to learn that, when arranged in a line, the neurons in a human brain would stretch the 700 miles from London to Berlin. But why? What purpose could this wide-eyed, slack-jawed feeling serve? It’s difficult to determine the biological function of any affect, but whatever it evolved for (and I’ll come to that), wonder might be humanity’s most important emotion, Prinz writes in How wonder works.
Prinz’s favourite definition of wonder comes from the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith. Wonder, he wrote in History of Astronomy (1795), arises “when something quite new and singular is presented… [and] memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance’. Smith associated this quality of experience with a distinctive bodily feeling — ‘that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart.”
“[T]hese bodily symptoms point to three dimensions that might in fact be essential components of wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes. The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them. This leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled: we gasp and say ‘Wow!’ Finally, wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration; hence Smith’s invocation of the swelling heart,” Prinz writes.
He then argues that “science, religion and art are unified in wonder. Each engages our senses, elicits curiosity and instils reverence. Without wonder, it is hard to believe that we would engage in these distinctively human pursuits. Robert Fuller, a professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, contends that it is ‘one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order.’
In science, that invisible order might include microorganisms and the invisible laws of nature. In religion, we find supernatural powers and divine agents. Artists invent new ways of seeing that give us a fresh perspective on the world we inhabit.”
“Art, science and religion appear to be uniquely human institutions. This suggests that wonder has a bearing on human uniqueness as such, which in turn raises questions about its origins. Did wonder evolve? Are we the only creatures who experience it?
[René Descartes] claimed that it was innate in human beings; in fact, he called it our most fundamental emotion. The pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson also posited an inborn sense of wonder, one especially prevalent in children. An alternative possibility is that wonder is a natural by-product of more basic capacities, such as sensory attention, curiosity and respect, the last of which is crucial in social status hierarchies. Extraordinary things trigger all three of these responses at once, evoking the state we call wonder.
Other animals can experience it, too. The primatologist Jane Goodall was observing her chimpanzees in Gombe when she noticed a male chimp gesturing excitedly at a beautiful waterfall. He perched on a nearby rock and gaped at the flowing torrents of water for a good 10 minutes. Goodall and her team saw such responses on several occasions. She concluded that chimps have a sense of wonder, even speculating about a nascent form of spirituality in our simian cousins.
This leaves us with a puzzle. If wonder is found in all human beings and higher primates, why do science, art and religion appear to be recent developments in the history of our species? Anatomically modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, yet the earliest evidence for religious rituals appears about 70,000 years ago, in the Kalahari Desert, and the oldest cave paintings (at El Castillo in Spain) are only 40,000 years old. Science as we know it is much younger than that — perhaps only a few hundred years old. It is also noteworthy that these endeavours are not essential for survival, which means they probably aren’t direct products of natural selection. Art, science and religion are all forms of excess; they transcend the practical ends of daily life. Perhaps evolution never selected for wonder itself.
And if wonder is shared beyond our own species, why don’t we find apes carpooling to church each Sunday? The answer is that the emotion alone is not sufficient. It imbues us with the sense of the extraordinary, but it takes considerable intellectual prowess and creativity to cope with extraordinary things by devising origin myths, conducting experiments and crafting artistic representations. Apes rarely innovate; their wonder is a dead-end street. So it was for our ancestors. For most of our history, humans travelled in small groups in constant search for subsistence, which left little opportunity to devise theories or create artworks. As we gained more control over our environment, resources increased, leading to larger group sizes, more permanent dwellings, leisure time, and a division of labour. Only then could wonder bear its fruit.
Art, science and religion reflect the cultural maturation of our species. Children at the circus are content to ogle at a spectacle. Adults might tire of it, craving wonders that are more profound, fertile, illuminating. For the mature mind, wondrous experience can be used to inspire a painting, a myth or a scientific hypothesis. These things take patience, and an audience equally eager to move beyond the initial state of bewilderment. The late arrival of the most human institutions suggests that our species took some time to reach this stage. We needed to master our environment enough to exceed the basic necessities of survival before we could make use of wonder.
If this story is right, wonder did not evolve for any purpose. It is, rather, a by-product of natural inclinations, and its great human derivatives are not inevitable. But wonder is the accidental impetus behind our greatest achievements. Art, science and religion are inventions for feeding the appetite that wonder excites in us. They also become sources of wonder in their own right, generating epicycles of boundless creativity and enduring inquiry. Each of these institutions allows us to transcend our animality by transporting us to hidden worlds. In harvesting the fruits of wonder, we came into our own as a species.”
Why Stoicism isn’t just about you
You are likely to think that Stoicism is a philosophy of the self — a philosophy about self-control or self-development. But Nancy Sherman, the author of Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience, argues that the classic texts of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca tell a different story.
“To be ‘at home’ in the world, a stock Stoic phrase, is to be a citizen of the cosmos, not bound by the borders of a polis, as Aristotle had argued. We are global citizens, on the Stoic view, cosmopolitans, a term coined by a colourful predecessor of the Stoics, Diogenes the Cynic. When asked where he was from, Diogenes replied: from everywhere and nowhere, ‘a world citizen.’
The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, develops the idea in his Republic, of which only fragments remain. But [the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius], no doubt, was telegraphing the notion when he writes we are ‘woven together’ by a ‘common bond,’ ‘scarcely one thing foreign to another.’ That bond, in the Stoic view, is our shared reason.
Shared reason involves collectively following the laws that govern the moral commonwealth as a cosmopolitan community. The Stoics never explicitly articulated these laws in the way later moral philosophers would. But the idea is that through cultivated attitudes and choices, we learn to act in law-abiding ways that facilitate a global community. Meditative exercises train us to rein in our ego, rage and privilege, and to curb acquisitive desires or fears of what is foreign so that we can cooperate with others and become world citizens,” Sherman writes in Why Stoicism isn’t just about you.
“Hierocles, a lesser-known second-century Roman Stoic philosopher, offers a concrete exercise for widening our circles of social concern. Draw concentric rings around the self as a centre-point. Make the inner circles kith and kin then, beyond that, fellow tribesmen, then one’s local community and citizens of one’s country, until finally one reaches the outermost circle, the whole of humanity. Your job, Hierocles writes, is to shrink the space between the circles, ‘zealously transferring’ those on the outer rings to the inner ones.
Yet this social thread in Stoic philosophy runs counter to the popular image of the Stoic as self-reliant and detached. Granted, the Stoics at times encourage that reading in their notion that ‘external’ goods — such as health, friendships and family — are ‘indifferents.’ But this Stoic term of art doesn’t mean ‘indifference.’ It signals that there is a class of goods distinct from the most stable and genuine good — the inner good of virtue. ‘Indifferents’ are lesser goods because, ultimately, we have less control over them than we do the cultivation of virtue. Loved ones may succumb to sickness, our own health may be fragile, friendships may fade.
We need Stoic virtue precisely to better face this uncertainty and vulnerability. Stoic meditative practices prepare us for disappointment. They teach that we should ‘pre-rehearse’ evils or bad outcomes, so that we are not blindsided. We should ‘dwell in the future,’ as Cicero puts it, and contemplate our mortality, as Seneca urges. These are ways to gain a sense of control in a world where we know we don’t have full control. They are ways of trying to find equanimity. But that’s not the same thing as detachment or acquiescence. Or indifference.
The Stoics offer other techniques for wise deliberation in the social world. In fact, what is often missed when Stoicism is presented as self-help is that the very tools that can put a buffer between the outer world and our experience of it are the same ones that can help us change that outer world for the better — for example, by helping us to slow down impulsive thinking that can cloud our judgement.
These are techniques for changing the world by changing how we see and react to it. If, in the tradition of the ancient Stoics, we are committed to controlling our anger or finding serenity through mental discipline, it is not in order to promote a me protected from the outer world and engagement in the community. It is in order to live virtuously and cooperatively, with goodwill towards others.”
Or, as Sherman concludes: Stoicism is about us and committing to the project of our common good.
In the margins
“Dreams and goals are important because they give us a metric against which to measure progress; you don’t care if you’re getting closer to Rome unless you are trying to get to Rome. But as I have written before, progress, not meeting a goal, is what brings true happiness. Researchers have confirmed this time and again. In their 2011 book, The Progress Principle, [Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer] analyzed the day-to-day well-being of 238 employees at seven companies and found that satisfaction was brought about not by big, audacious wins, but rather by forward momentum in meaningful work. Other psychologists have found that in life, not just work, progress consistently beats accomplishment when it comes to well-being. Humans are wired, it seems, for improvement. […]
Goal attainment can even bring problems. Some researchers have argued that when a goal is a true end point for progress, the cessation of forward motion can lead to a feeling of emptiness, exactly what Anne Shcherbakova described in Beijing. Or as a friend of mine and fellow author told me, ‘I always thought that there would be no better feeling than the day I saw I had a number one New York Times best seller. And when it finally happened, I felt nothing.’
Worse than feeling nothing, you might subject yourself to what the self-improvement writer Stephanie Rose Zoccatelli calls the ‘post-achievement hangover,’ a feeling of restlessness and mild depression in the days after a major milestone, such as graduating from college or getting married. One plausible explanation for this phenomenon has to do with dopamine, a neuromodulator that gives us a sense of pleasurable anticipation of a reward. Dopamine is elevated before you achieve a goal and depleted afterward. This leads to what you might call ‘anti-anticipation,’ or a sense of emptiness. Some scholars have hypothesized that dopamine depletion underlies the terrible dysphoria experienced by drug abusers when they abstain.
This potentially explains a lot of paradoxical behavior, such as why New Year’s resolutions usually fail in the long run, even after initial success. The imagined sustained bliss after, say, saving more money is a mirage; your prize for success is saving money, forever. The progress gives you little shots of dopamine as your savings increase. But once you hit your goal and look out over the wide expanse of permanent fiscal austerity … it’s a dopamine desert.
To pursue one big goal in the hope of attaining happiness is, ironically, to set yourself up for unhappiness. Buddhists see such goals as just another kind of worldly attachment that creates a cycle of craving and clinging. This principle is at the heart of Buddhism’s first noble truth, that life is suffering. This doesn’t mean that you should abandon all goals, however. You just need to understand and pursue them in a different way.”
From: Why Success Can Feel So Bitter, by Arthur C. Brooks (The Atlantic)
“You are a victim. A person of anxious experience, navigating a minefield of shame triggers. Research suggests that people with your attachment style are predisposed to dissociating. Some experts believe this very sentence could re-traumatize you. It’s not your fault, of course. You just need to reframe your narrative.
This is the language of a coalescing sub-genre of self-help books that combine the comforting yet impenetrable vocabulary of modern therapy with pseudoscientific grand theories on human behavior. You’ll recognize it from titles like Atlas of the Heart, Atomic Habits, The Body Keeps The Score, Attached, Mating in Captivity, even The Artist’s Way. None were bestsellers upon release, but all have slow-burned their way to the tops of bestseller lists and the bookshelves of People Who Go To Therapy. These are the new bourgeois bibles — foundational texts for a generation of yuppies adrift.
These books peddle feel-good Marvel movie versions of philosophy that don’t challenge our conceptions, but validate our feelings, often backing up their circular logic with dubious ‘research’ and ‘experts.’ They cajole and condescend, opening neural pathways that lead directly to the author’s paywalled Substack.
I call this genre ‘Tedcore.’ Most of these authors have given Ted talks, and much like the popular conference series, these books are accessible yet vaguely highbrow, prone to presenting the mundane as revelatory. With every new trite slogan she drops, the Ted speaker doesn’t just imply, ‘Aren’t I amazing?’ — she says, ‘Aren’t we amazing?!’ Everyone gets to leave feeling smarter and more special. Unlike its pluckier predecessors (Men are From Mars, Women are Venus or How to Win Friends and Influence People), Tedcore doesn’t attempt to decode what others are thinking, instead turning the gaze to our navels, pathologizing our every thought.
These books still sing with American optimism — yes, you can be happier! — but it arrives in the numbing straitjacket of an analyst who swaps Freud for Myers-Briggs. Psychoanalytic concepts — desire, sexuality, family dynamics — are sanded down until they can be comfortably applied to not getting a promotion at work. Your anxieties are your identity now. You don’t need to be fixed. Just discussed. And possibly medicated. For ever.
The solutions these books offer invariably encourage us to look outward, take yoga, learn a language, get over our exes, process our trauma by directing our energy towards something new. Mason describes the ‘value of suffering.’ That ‘happiness requires struggle’ and something great awaits you on the other side of feeling sorry for yourself. Yet there you sit, alone in your apartment, or next to your sleeping partner, or neck-pillowed in the Delta Sky Lounge, desperately scanning the pages of a self-help book for mentions of the only thing you really care about: you.”
From: Tedcore: the self-help books that have changed the way we live, speak and think, by Steven Phillips-Horst (The Guardian)
“What if we reframed ‘living with uncertainty’ to ‘navigating mystery’? There’s more energy in that phrase. The hum of imaginative voltage. And is our life not a mystery school, a seat of earthy instruction?
There are few tales worth remembering that don’t have uncertainty woven into them. Without uncertainty we have mission statements not myth. We have polemic not poetry, sign not symbol. There’s no depth when we are already floating above true human experience. And true human experience has always involved ambiguity, paradox, and eventually the need for sheer pluck. Uncertainty doesn’t feel sexy, I admit. It can derail confidence, make us neurotic, doubt ourselves. But mythic intelligence suggests we have to negotiate such terrain for a story of worth to surround us. I don’t say this lightly; it has real testing attached.
The Handless Maiden, alone in the dark forest — she knows uncertainty. Odysseus, trying to get back to Ithaca — he knows uncertainty. The Firebird caged by a Russian Tzar — she knows uncertainty. Uncertainty is a jittery passport to the kingdom of the living, inevitable for all. Having lived half a century in its energy field, I make no pretense to like it much. But understand it? See its value? I do.
But to navigate mystery is not the same thing as living with uncertainty. It doesn’t contain the hallmarks of manic overconfidence or gnawing anxiety. It’s the blue feather in the magpie’s tale. Hard to glimpse without attention. There’s no franchise or hashtag attached. Navigating mystery humbles us, reminds us with every step that we don’t know everything, are not, in fact, the masters of all.
As humans we’ve long been forged on the anvil of the mysteries: Why are we here? Why do we die? What is love? We are tuned like a cello to vibrate with such questions. What is entirely new is the amount of information we are receiving from all over the planet. So we don’t just receive stress on a localized, human level, we mainline it from a huge, abstract, conceptual perspective. Perpetual availability to both creates a nervous wreck.
The old stories say, enough; that one day we have to walk our questions, our yearnings, our longings. We have to set out into those mysteries, even with the uncertainty. Especially with the uncertainty. Make it magnificent. We take the adventure. Not naively but knowing this is what a grown-up does. We embark. Let your children see you do it. Set sail, take the wing, commit to the stomp. Evoke a playful boldness that makes even angels swoon. There’s likely something tremendous waiting.”
From: Navigating the Mysteries, by Martin Shaw (Emergence Magazine)
A Messy Table, a Map of the World is another beautiful episode from The New York Times’s Close Read series, in which Jason Farago ‘deciphers’ a painting by the 17th-century painter Willem Claesz Heda, entitled Still Life with a Gilt Cup (1635).
“Inside and between these carefully observed objects is a narrative of global scale. It’s a tale Heda tells even despite himself. Just look at one last thing. Between the two napkins, underneath the upturned goblet, Heda has given us a knife. Its handle — though I can’t be sure — looks to be ebony: the most precious of woods, borne back from Batavia on a three-masted East Indiaman. It may even be inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Yet beneath that napkin is a blade, tucked just out of sight. An exotic luxury that is also a weapon, half exposed, pointing out to us.
The littlest things have a life of their own. And the world that produced them, all its beauty and violence, can be discovered in a place as familiar as your breakfast table. Art may show you the connections for just a moment. They will always be hazy. But some motions can only be sensed when you’re standing still.”
From: A Messy Table, a Map of the World, by Jason Farago (The New York Times)
“It was 2020 and I was engaged in a remembrance of my own. As 9:06 rolled around and people stirred again, I awoke to the fact that I had seen all this before. Fifteen years earlier, I had stood at the edge of this very same waterway, witnessing this very same scene. Practically all my adult life lay between the time when I had come to this city, as an aspiring writer of 25, ready to travel seriously through the Muslim world for a book I had yet to write — from Istanbul to Mecca, and from Mecca to Lahore — and now, when, a few weeks away from 40, I had returned to Istanbul.
Why? Was it to look again at what had become of the world I had traveled through in 2005? Was it to look again at what had become of me? Was it to use the idea of returning to a place one has known intimately as the means to travel not merely through space but also through time — to revisit a former self, perhaps even to confront him? I couldn’t say. What I knew, walking back through plane-lined boulevards draped with Turkish flags, Atatürk’s speeches blaring out of rows of free-standing speakers on the pavement, was what I felt: paralysis.
‘You can go back many times to the same place,’ says a character in V.S. Naipaul’s 1979 novel, A Bend in the River, ‘and something strange happens if you go back often enough. You stop grieving for the past. You see that the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn’t exist in real life. You trample on the past, you crush it. In the beginning it is like trampling on a garden. In the end you are just walking on ground.’”
From: Returning to Istanbul, a Place of Competing Identities, by Aatish Taseer (The New York Times)
Photography by Joakim Eskildsen
“If we believed that the existence of the world is rooted in mystery and in sanctity, then we would have a different economy. It would still be an economy of use, necessarily, but it would be an economy also of return. The economy would have to accommodate the need to be worthy of the gifts we receive and use, and this would involve a return of propitiation, praise, gratitude, responsibility, good use, good care, and a proper regard for the unborn. What is most conspicuously absent from the industrial economy and industrial culture is this idea of return. Industrial humans relate themselves to the world and its creatures by fairly direct acts of violence. Mostly we take without asking, use without respect or gratitude, and give nothing in return.” — Wendell Berry in The Agrarian Standard (Orion Magazine, July 1, 2002)