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Restoring the Sense of Wonder

by Harry Willson


A. The Sense of Wonder

In the opening pages of Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud acknowledged the existence, in some people, of what he called "the oceanic feeling." It includes an awareness of one's smallness in the face of the rest of what is. Words like "awe" and "adoration" come to mind. This feeling isn't simply fear, or need not be. It may include a sense of unspeakable joy, a strong feeling of all-right-ness. Often there is an inclination to acknowledge some sort of obligation to do better, or to be better, as part of the awareness of Something.

Freud admitted to having never experienced this feeling personally, but for some reason he felt he needed to refer to it. No doubt he had read of it, and probably he had heard about it from some of his patients. He was a little puzzled by it, and then dismissed it.

In another book, The Future of an Illusion, Freud dismisses the "projected father figure" as an illusion, and says it has no future. This is what most people mean by, "God." Freud states that there is nothing to it — there's nothing there; it is simply an illusion.

But the "oceanic feeling" is still there, for some if not all, and it needs additional consideration. Another name for this human experience is "the sense of wonder."

Unlike Freud, this writer has experienced the oceanic feeling, the sense of wonder. My earliest memory of it was a recurring dream, which was more like an audience than a vision. I was very, very young. I heard a voice, calling my name, deep and resonant, compelling, threatening — "Harry! Harry!" It always called the name twice, in Biblical fashion. "Moses, Moses." "Samuel, Samuel." "Saul, Saul." "Harry! Harry!" I waited, trembling, for more. Just my name, and a compelling feeling that I had to do something, that I was not all right, that I was leaving something undone, or that I had done something wrong.

That Voice poisoned childhood. I have had to go back and recover as an adult the spontaneity and freedom and joy that the story-myths attribute to childhood. I have more "fun" now than I ever had as a child, and far more joy. Being a tormented child meant that life was all work and obedience and disobedience and trouble and weakness and misunderstanding and confusion and ignorance.

Much later I became convinced that that voice was a psychological mechanism, my father's authority internalized very early. Psychoanalysts would have called it The Super Ego. But I, and everybody around me, called it "God," and I had to take it seriously. It cost half a lifetime to break free.

But the oceanic feeling persists, even though the Voice has been unearthed and aired, and understood and removed. I have felt the sense of wonder many times, and now I deliberately seek that special awareness. I have come to believe it is a good thing.

As a child I sought it in the church, since it was assumed by everyone around me that the Source of that sense of wonder was to be found there. I joined in the pretence, willingly and eagerly at first, and then with more and more difficulty. The oceanic feeling did not come the day I was baptized. The water dried during the sermon and I felt no different. It didn't come in the communion services, with the trays of bread and the tiny glasses of grape juice. It did not come the evening I was ordained a "minister," even though I wanted it to very much. I could not force that sense of wonder to operate, by praying or preaching or reading the Bible or listening.

I could not force it, but from time to time it came to me anyway. It was always a surprise. I fully appreciated the title of one of C. S. Lewis' books, Surprised by Joy.

On one occasion, I was camping as a boy with a friend, and awakened by a strange light. It was not the moon, which was over there. This was another light over that other way, in the meadow. I sat up and pulled my glasses from my shoe and put them on. Could a car be coming on that steep narrow rut-track, in the dark in the middle of the night? No, it was not that kind of light, and the woods were silent.

We tried to walk quietly among the dried fallen leaves, but could not. We stopped at the edge of the meadow. "God Almighty!" my companion blurted, with a gasp. For an instant, I thought of stories of angels and holy light, but I could tell this was different, and this was not a story.

A cloud of light hovered at the far end of the meadow, moving inside itself, as high as the trees in some places, but mostly not taller than a boy. It grew as we watched it. The cloud sent out sections of itself along the edge of the meadow, into the trees, then pulled back, then extended further, taking over more and more space.

"It's coming this way!" my friend whispered, sounding scared.

"Yeah. What is it?" I asked.

"I dunno, but I think we should get outa here," he said.

"Not me. I wanta see what it is." We were whispering loudly, and the cloud of light was

approaching. I was not exactly afraid. I was excited. I felt something, all right, but not fear. My heart pounded, and I could hear myself panting, as if I had been running. But I couldn't run away, and didn't want to. "Let's see what it is."

I studied the moving, growing, approaching cloud of light. I saw little points of light inside the big glow. Each one blinked on and off, as I watched. The blinking was especially plain out on the growing edges of the cloud.

The expanding arm of the mass of light came nearer to us. "I think I'm gonna go," my companion said, with a tremble in his voice.

"O.K.," I said, meaning, "You go if you want to. I'm staying."

I stood my ground. As the cloud approached close enough for me to reach out and touch it, I saw what it was. I had seen them before, but never by the millions. Fireflies. "Lightning bugs," we kids called them. But millions of them. They landed on my arm, and blinked on and off. They went on past me. They were circling the meadow, and crossing it, and filling it. I stepped out onto the grass, and felt myself surrounded by all those gentle little bits of light. At the same time, the whole cloud felt to me like something very big, very powerful, irresistible.

I didn't know what to make of it. Magic, weird, perfectly natural, very strange, exciting, breath-taking — I sat down in the meadow and let the lightning bugs play on me. I lay down and looked up through the cloud of light. They hid the stars. The light went deep into my eyes and did something to my insides. I stayed lying there for hours. I must have fallen asleep. When dawn changed the color of the sky, the cloud was gone.

The following winter, on a bitter cold night when my folks were worrying about the danger of the water pipes freezing, an uncle came visiting. He came on the coldest night of the year to bring the family a bushel of pecans from Florida. He greeted the grown-ups, delivered the pecans, and then turned to me. "Get a sweater on, and then your coat. Also a hat, and good mittens."

"Where we goin'?" I asked.

"Outside. I want to show you something."

We went out. It was very dark. The shoveled snow was piled up taller than I between the street and the sidewalk. The temperature was below zero.

We stood in the middle of the street on the packed snow and looked up. The sky had changed. Curtains of light hung down, from overhead, all the way to the north end of Arch Street. Moving sheets of color — purple, green, dark red, pink, silver. The lines of color moved like draperies opening and closing, lifting and falling.

I was stunned. My heart pounded. My voice sounded little and far away. "What is it? What's happening?"

"I'll explain later," said my uncle in a hushed voice. After the first exclamations and questions, we both were silent. It looked like the entrance into Heaven. I stood there with my head craned back for a very long time, soaking it in. I was having a vision, better than Jacob's ladder. The curtains opened, inviting me to come up and in. They closed. They opened again. It was like a call to come up and in.

At last my uncle pulled me back down and away from that mystery, back into the house. While the family worried about the effect of the extreme cold, most of me was somewhere else. In the sky. In "Heaven."

My uncle taught me the words, "Aurora Borealis." He didn't think "Northern Lights" was good enough. And I was glad for the strange words. Really magic words, they were, for something marvelous and precious and totally mysterious.

The Aurora Borealis had no noticeable effect on the rest of the family, that I could notice. But it had done something to me. I could tell. It was like the previous summer's cloud of fireflies. Something. Something. The Whole Thing, maybe. Not our insignificant little sins. Something big and important and alive and powerful and gentle. I knew something I didn't know before, and was glad. I couldn't put it into words, maybe, but I knew. Something.

It was the sense of wonder. I felt it again as a teen-ager on my first airplane ride, looking down on my home town.

I felt it later, looking into a child's face as she died.

I feel it when I am swept away by sexual ecstasy.

I feel it, sometimes, as I kneel alone staring into the fire in the little fireplace in our living room.

I have felt it reading certain books, discovering new, previously unimagined continents.

And I feel the oceanic feeling every time, when, after an absence of months or years, I first see again the ocean itself. I wallow in that feeling, when I play in the surf.

The oceanic feeling is not always pleasant. Littleness is part of it. Helplessness often is. A sense of loss of control, along with fear and frustration, can be in it. An awareness of my mortality is in it.

I must state again that I have never felt it in church, although I sometimes joined in the pretence that we did.

I have observed that those who use the word "God" most glibly are usually very arrogant and unpleasant persons. TV evangelists, for example, and leaders of extremist political and religious movements. "God" can become an excuse and even a justification for plain old nastiness.

On the contrary, the oceanic feeling, the sense of wonder, can lead people to a humble awareness of Truth, with some sense of the human ego's relative size and importance, in all the Cosmos. More gentle and more loving human beings can be the result. I don't believe we want to get rid of the sense of wonder.

The sense of wonder, felt when looking through tele- scopes or microscopes, or into the heart of a volcano, or into the eye of a friend, does not require a Transcendent Entity, a projected personification of ego's fear.

The sense of wonder can enhance life greatly, rather than terrify or stifle and regulate, when it is arrived at from looking inward. All that power and order, and the wonder they inspire, are within. What transcends ego, which is something ego badly needs, is not Omnipotent, Omniscient, Wholly Other, but rather the connectedness of What is Within to the Innerness of all things. What is in me is in all, in us all, as well as volcanos and galaxies.

A restored sense of wonder can become an invitation to an inward journey. Let us confront the infantile fear, so easily projected outward as "the fear of God." Let us find the strange powerful unknown within each one, and make peace with that. Then we won't need an Entity "out there" to explain and justify things, from which we must then seek forgiveness. Let's go on in and find out how marvelous each one is, and how connected we are to everything else. Inner Peace comes, not from tricks of sacrifice that mollify an angry Entity that we have offended, but rather from accepting all the parts of ourselves. We'll find them inside there.

Scholars of the anatomy of the human brain have begun to identify that portion of the organ which deals with mysticism, mythology and mystery. There is plenty of mystery to be dealt with — "Where'd we come from?" "Where are we going?" "What the Sam Hill is going on anyway?" Sometimes these are called "philosophical questions," and there are people who push them away as soon as they come up. Others go for pre-packaged answers to such questions without really putting to use this mystery organ which we all have.

The wonder organ, that section of the brain that senses wonder, or is in play when wonder is sensed, can be located in all of us and therefore must have had some kind of evolutionary advantage in past eons. Just thinking about that in itself will put your wonder organ into motion. What is it for? What survival function does it serve? Why did it evolve at all?

Which leads to the next question — does the existence of this organ correspond to something "out there?" We have eyes because there is light out there and our eyes use light to perceive what else is out there. We have ears because there is sound, and our ears use sound to help us perceive what else is out there. So — do we have the wonder organ because there is Something out there? Something that would help us perceive Something Else?

Well, there is no question that there is something there all right — all that Mystery, the Unknown, the Incomprehensible, the Indescribable. Some philosophers call it "the numinous." When your wonder organ is working, you're in touch with That. Right away someone is going to want to call it "God," but that will amount to short-circuiting a process that would do more good if allowed to work further without resorting to that word. It would be like taking a shortcut too soon. Jumping to "God" very well may shut down the wonder organ before it has had a chance to do much or learn much or grow much. If you watch carefully, you'll find that religions tend not to be much help in this wonder department, even though that's what they pretend to be all about.

When one looks carefully over the eons, one observes that the function of the religions for the most part, so far, has been to harness, channel, control, not to say stultify, mediocritize and asphyxiate, that sense of wonder or mystery that we are dealing with here. Religions channel ecstasy into pageantry. They trade conviction for tradition.

Religions are designed to make saints out of advanced wonderers, like Francis of Assisi or Teresa de Avila. The effect is to put their example out of reach. We're supposed to admire and even worship them, rather than do what they did or what they taught. Religious organizations prefer to control people, rather than turn them on to wonder, which will turn them loose, or make them free.

But wonder keeps turning up, overthrowing the way the social system wants us to think. The wonder organ can help us know, really know — and then the spin-doctors appear in our eyes as users of falsehood and deception. We'll search for causes rather than cures, for things like cancer, and then it'll be harder for the perpetrators of the causes to keep us in line.

The sense of wonder, turned loose, can make us reach further and change our minds and even change what we've been doing. The sense of wonder, and our wonder organs, could make our lives so exciting, so vibrant, that it would become unthinkable that we would permit the life-hating forces and powers of religion to spoil everything.

So, the wonder organ is an evolutionary advantage. We, all together, need to exercise it well just now, because the species happens to be in considerable danger, and all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men aren't helping. Our wonder organs will make Freethinkers of us, if we let them. We will then be regarded as subversive and dangerous, a threat to the comforts and advantages that those who would destroy the world now obtain from their activities. It'll take courage, but it'll be exciting, and worth doing.

B. Another Obsession

Many of the support groups which are so popular these days are designed to help persons become free of some obsession. Alcohol, nicotine, pills, food, sex, work — whatever. The abuse of any of these things constitutes a problem, and the idea is that persons who have identified a common problem can often help each other.

This book is concerned about becoming free of still another obsession. It is more harmful and more painful than others, because it is not generally recognized as an obsession at all. The freedom being sought is generally regarded by others as a loss. "She lost her faith," someone will say. She may feel better, and be obviously better off, but the general attitude toward her, which she must learn to put up with, is that something unfortunate has happened.

The professor was explaining to his students the function of a priest, any priest in any religious system. He named two functions:

[1] to sanction whatever society is doing, in the name of a Higher Power, and

[2] to placate the numinous. He was asked to explain number two without jargon. "Get God off our backs," he said. Sacrifices, offerings, prayers, holy obligations, fasting — whatever it takes to get "God," or whatever gods may be, to leave us in peace. "They'll pay you, a little," he growled, "and expect you to relieve them of 'God'."

Then he shifted topics and began to explain the function of a prophet. That was the title used in ancient Israel, although other cultures and religions have other names for them. "The gadfly that stings," Socrates called himself. "Agents of cultural change," is a phrase used today, to refer to some artists. The prophet sees what's going on, applies some overarching standard to it, like Justice or Truth, or what he understands to be "the will of God," or "the word of God," and then he sounds off.

But, said the professor, just as the prophet gets going, "here they come with those damned rattles." Here they come, not interested in the prophet's objections to what society is doing. Here they come, demanding that the priest quit referring at all to "social issues" and return to his task, which is to get God off their backs.

I tried to be a sort of prophet, long ago, but didn't handle well at all the role of priest. I never got "God" off other people's backs at all. But now, unconnected to any ecclesiastical organization, I find I have gotten "God" off my own back, and wonder if what I've learned could help someone else figure out how to do it, too. So, I write this.

The dictionary defines an obsession as "a persistent idea, desire, emotion or pattern of behavior, especially one that cannot be got rid of by reasoning." We have a right to be concerned about those obsessions that make a person do things that are harmful to oneself or others.

"You smoke too much" — it'll kill you, and injure those around you.

"You drink too much" — it'll kill you, and interfere with work and family meanwhile.

"You can't get sex under control" — it's ruining your life, and other people's.

"Your work has become an obsession" — it'll kill you, and meanwhile leaves no time or energy for any of the rest of your life.

"God" in the minds and in the lives of many is a sort of obsession, which leads them to believe things which are foolish and patently not true, and to do things which are unwise and unkind, both to others and to themselves.

A mental or emotional disability is different from a physical one. You adapt to the physical and go on as best you can. Eyeglasses, dentures, wooden legs, wheelchairs, limps — you adapt. An obsession/disability is something to get rid of, if possible, because it makes you do unwise things. For example:

[1] "God" may lead you to thwart your desires.

[2] "God" may lead you to set aside your own best interests.

[3] "God" may lead you to feel guilty for things you didn't do.

[4] "God" may lead you to feel guilty simply for being the way you are.

[5] "God" may lead you to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think.

[6] "God" may lead you to think more lowly of yourself than you ought to think.

[7] "God" may lead you to stay aloof from fine people.

[8] "God" may lead you to meddle where you have no business.

[9] "God" may lead you to approve of nonsense.

[10] "God" may lead you to approve of wickedness.

Very much of that kind of thing can mess up life badly. Individuals can change, however, especially when they want to.

"I can't handle this any more. It's beyond my control. I know it doesn't make sense, but I can't stop myself. I need help." There is already in existence a Fundamen-talists Anonymous organization, designed to de-program people from fundamentalist Christian cults. Perhaps there is need of an even wider-reaching movement. God Anonymous, offering help in getting rid of the God-obsession.

If "God" — whatever definition one may be using, whether deliberately or by default — feels like a disability and a hindrance to a full life, then this discussion may be helpful. If there are forbidden topics in one's mind and conversation, unthinkable points of view, unimaginable companions or friends because of what they believe or even what they look like, it may be the "God"-obsession which is hindering the fullest sort of experience.

"God" may be an ogre left-over from childhood training, which still troubles the nightmares of an adult. If that's so, it can be understood and outgrown.

Having noted that, it is necessary to be aware that there is a risk here. After probing into all this, defining "God" more carefully, at last, and noting some of the remarkable history of the idea, there is the danger that the seeker will decide that everything humans have ever meant by the term is nonsense, and everything they have ever done in the name of "God," is worse than nonsense. There is no doubt that a great deal of very bad behavior and very harmful teaching has been justified by appealing to "God." But one can over-react.

The danger is that the inner search, the quest for meaning in life, the sense of wonder, and the seeker's response to the sense of wonder will all be rejected, in the name of one's personal freedom from this far-reaching obsession.

We want freedom, and clarity and truth, but when we find them, we want them to enhance the sense of wonder. There is a great deal to wonder about, with or without "God." The quest, the search for meaning, does not need "God" to justify itself. We are trying to root out an obsession, not our remarkable ability to wonder about life and the world we are a part of.

C. Self-aware

"Is The Cosmos self-aware?" I asked.

"Surely it is," the philosopher replied.

"I suspect it may be," I said, and then added, to myself, some of the following:

By pondering the arrangement of things and the known rules of that arrangement, and imagining the myriad unknown rules of the same arrangement, I find myself supposing that The Cosmos may be self-aware. It does contain some aware entities, you and me, for starters. It contains at least a kind of partial self-awareness.

Even if the Cosmos is self-aware, we should not call that self-awareness "God," because that word conjures up too many notions that range from the preposterous to the wicked, and we'll waste much energy having to refute what no longer needs refuting.

Teilhard de Chardin knew all that, and allowed the Pope and the Jesuits to keep the word "God," while he went on, and left them scratching their heads in utter perplexity as to what he meant by his far-stretched notions, like Point Alpha and Point Omega. I'll admit that his ideas are far from crystalline in their clarity, but he was trying. He was hindered by a strange loyalty to the Pope and the Jesuit Order. I am grateful that I am not.

Who else is not hindered by philosophical axioms and theological presuppositions, but still willing to wonder about The Cosmos? Is The Cosmos just? Does it care about Justice, really, or is that idea nothing more than a deceptive ploy on the part of the powerful to justify their own misdeeds? Is The Cosmos stupid? Is The Cosmos fooled by our rationalizations and explanations and excuses and sacrifices and rituals and atonements of one kind or another?

Could those of us who still want clarity on this matter ever find each other, or must it always be a loner here and a loner there, calling out like crickets in the night, chirping but not finding each other, not hearing each other, longing for someone to share the quest but questing nevertheless, with or without a group? I needed to become free of "God." My own liberation now seems like such a marvelous wonder that it impels me to turn back to those still imprisoned and say, "You, too, can be free! You can repudiate that authority, and remove those fingers at your throat. You can breathe!" To those who have instinctively insisted on breathing rather than choking, I want to say, "You don't need to feel bad about 'betraying' that which held you prisoner. Be glad and proud that you're free."

All of you who are not imprisoned, hindered, hampered, hobbled, hamstrung, or wing-clipped by "God" — ignore me. You're the lucky ones, and you can go your way without hesitation. I'm looking for those who want loose, who want out, who want to fly, to run, to sing, to dance, to say what you're thinking, to say, "No!" because that's the honest thing to say. And I'm looking for the others who have found their way out, one way or another, and may be feeling a little scared and bewildered out here in the fresh air.

I need to warn you, those around you will say you're going crazy. That's what going sane and free looks like from inside the prison. It'll take courage, but it'll be worth it.

Do you feel at home in The Cosmos? Or do you think "God" is after you, watching you, snooping, prying, objecting to your pleasure, binding heavy burdens on you, obligating you? It's a trick that has been played on you, by parents, siblings, neighbors, teachers, peers, authorities — to make you know your place and stay in it. When you're ready, you can wise up, and take charge of your own life.

Now, having gotten that far, can we go back to the original question? Is the Cosmos self-aware? Does our own curiosity about the inner, the mysterious, the connections between aware persons, the way our own consciousness can reach and stretch — does any of that mean anything? I think it might, if we can get past the pat little pre-arranged assumptions and answers.

D. On Getting over the Past

I have felt a great deal of shame and bitterness about the past. No, I'm not an ex-felon. I never robbed or murdered anyone. I am an ex-clergyman and an ex-missionary. I used to pretend that I knew about things which no twenty-five-year-old could possibly know. I used to try to counsel people in trouble — alcoholics, people near death, people in grief, people in collapsing marriages, mentally ill people, heart-broken people, people who were angry or frightened or proud or greedy or nasty or mean-hearted, — as if I wasn't in trouble enough myself, as if I had answers to their questions and solutions to their problems.

My wife told me the other day that the only thing in her full life that she's ashamed of is her former connection to the church, how she used to believe all that and take it seriously and really try to act out the doctrines and the teachings. I feel plenty of that, too. All the arrogance, all the judgmental evaluation of what was really other people's business, all the interference, all the stupid waste of energy and time and concern — I also feel shame just remembering those things.

But now it must be let go. What is done is done. A person has to start from wherever he is. I had to do that then, and I have to do it now, and so does everyone. What is to be done now is to understand it better, be wiser because of it — and let it go.

I really want to be rid of the arrogance. I'm ready to mind my own business. It's time, and past time, to tend to my own life, which is the only thing I can legitimately change in any way anyway and the only thing for which I am fully responsible.

And I want to give up the regret over wasted energy. Sometimes I feel plain foolish, remembering what I did and tried to do, as a person seriously trying to do what I thought "God" wanted. I suppose everyone my age feels some of that foolish regret, God or no God. We have to let it go.

I watch, with considerable envy, the kids wasting energy, working off energy, seeking ways to exhaust themselves. I find myself wanting to do some energetic thing, but I arrive at exhaustion sooner than I used to. Maybe I'm trying too hard to recover the shattered dreams of childhood that I never really had then. I was a victim of what some of us now call "spiritual abuse."

The First Big Question was disallowed, for instance. "What do you want?" It never came up. The shattering of the dreams of childhood was impossible, because there weren't any. I got over it, at last, in the second half of this strange journey. I began to dream, but not until after I got rid of "God." The great obsession poisoned the first half of life.

An old verse comes back, and means more than ever. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."


from FREEDOM FROM GOD Restoring the Sense of Wonder
© 2001, Harry Willson
read more: Ogre-Father God

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