You’re at a dinner party with friends. You tell a joke that you’ve waited all week to share. Everybody laughs, except one person.
“I don’t get it,” they say.
You now face a decision: if you don’t explain the joke, your friend feels left out. If you do, though, you’ve killed the moment because, as everybody knows, the fastest way to ruin a joke is to explain it.
EXPERIENCE vs EXPLANATION
That’s how it is with those elements of life that are meant to be experienced rather than explained. Whether it’s a joke at a party, taking in priceless art at the Louvre, or standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time. To explain it with words and facts is to rob the experience of its wonder.
When mishandled, knowledge is the enemy of wonder. Take magic, for example. When a magician pulls a rabbit from his hat, everyone cheers even though they know it was just a trick. If you know where the rabbit came from - or where the card was, or how the magician “read your mind” - the trick loses its power because it’s meant to be experienced and not explained. Magicians never reveal their secrets, not because it would expose the trick, but because it takes away the awe and wonder that the act is meant to create.
20th-century Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once wrote: “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” Life is too big, too expansive, too mysterious to be reduced to a collection of answers or solvable equations. To assume we have all the answers is to extinguish any need for exploration, curiosity, and, especially, wonder.
AWE AND WONDER IN THE MEDICAL FIELD
How do you as a physician or dentist maintain a sense of awe and wonder? Obviously, the human body is complex and fascinating. Yet the medical profession itself is inherently one of explanations and not experiences. Patients don’t come to you in hopes that you’ll help them explore the mysterious world of the human body. They come because their tooth hurts or they have a lump on their arm and need you to fix it. So it’s easy to settle for a life of quick answers and logical solutions to common problems without ever looking higher or deeper or further toward the mysteries of our world.
Knowledge can be the enemy of wonder when all we want are answers. But, knowledge and wonder can actually work hand-in-hand if we use knowledge well.
In this 2017 interview with Arianna Huffington, Neil deGrasse Tyson said of wonder: “Wonder is a window from where you are to where you want to be. No matter what that location is.” Even though our society is driven by facts, knowledge and answers, it’s actually questions that propel wonder, and wonder propels our desire for exploration. When wonder is the spark for our learning, answers are the beginning of the conversation; never the end. The discovery of one answer opens the door to a thousand more questions that sets us on a new path to continue learning, growing, exploring, and evolving.
Sometimes the most dangerous person in the room is the one who thinks he or she has nothing left to learn. A lost sense of wonder makes us settle for a small, bland world of rote, predictable answers. As boring as that may sound, it can be quite compelling because it brings a (false) sense of control and predictability to the world. That may work for a while, but eventually life grows beyond our limited awareness and our finite ability to answer every question. We inevitably encounter things we cannot understand, whether it’s something small like a unique medical issue, or something large like the sudden death of a loved one. Eventually, we will run out of answers for what life throws at us. But when we posses a deep sense of awe and wonder, when our minds and imaginations are elastic rather than concrete, we are in a better position to receive those moments without being overcome by them.
RECLAIM YOUR WONDER
Here are a few ways to intentionally renew your sense of wonder:
Not only are we driven by answers rather than questions, but a sense of wonder can also be snuffed out when our lives become too busy. Shuttling from work to home to the gym to the store to a night out with friends, etc. leaves us with little time to pause and notice all the fascinating things going on in the world unless we are intentional. For instance, consider waking up a little earlier to sit in the peace and quiet of the morning. Or pause before you go to sleep at night to review your day and reflect on something that fascinated you. It doesn’t require much time to be still and notice what’s going on. And that small, intentional investment can change the course of your day.
The most fascinating things in life aren’t always as expansive as the universe or as puzzling as the meaning of life. Watch the way an insect buzzes around or how a toddler plays with her toys. Feel the texture of a tree or isolate a particularly inviting smell. Noticing the small things grounds us in the present moment and helps us find awe and wonder right where we are.
However, there are certainly fascinating things beyond what we can see. Did you know the lights from most of the stars we see at night are from stars that burned out centuries ago, if not longer? Or, did you know the universe is expanding faster today than it ever has, and nobody can figure out why? The universe we inhabit is infinite; can you begin to comprehend that? It means that at no point, no matter how far or fast you travel, you will never come to the end of the universe. And yet it’s expanding! Fast!
Do something different.
Another great way to keep your sense of wonder strong and active is to schedule time once in a while to do something completely outside your realm of familiarity. Sign up for a free dance class. Attend a cultural festival you know nothing about. Visit a church or place of worship outside of your belief system. Try food that scares you a little. New experiences open your mind to the fact that your particular way of seeing the world is not the only way of seeing. It sparks curiosity and may even lead to the discovery of something you grow to love.
WONDER CRUSHES BURNOUT
As we often write, physicians and dentists suffer from burnout at a rate unmatched by most other professions. One of the primary causes of burnout is a deep sense of meaninglessness about one’s work and life. Awe and wonder are some of our greatest weapons against meaninglessness. The more fascinated we are with the world and universe we inhabit, the more passion we have not only for our work, but for our families, our friends, our faith, and, especially ourselves.
So don’t worry about explaining that joke to your friend. Some things in life are better experienced than explained.