Since the title of this sermon is “Wonder Trumps Anxiety”, let’s start with a couple definitions, just so we are all on the same page. You are probably familiar with anxiety. From the American Psychological Association, “anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried and intrusive thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
And wonder. Well that’s a little more difficult. People sometimes define wonder using poetry and metaphor. Not too long ago I came across church consultant Susan Beaumont’s writings. She wrote “Wonder is the ability to feel amazement, admiration and curiosity about something. Wonder invites our best, most creative thinking. Wonder connects us with [humanity, the universe, the divine].”
To better understand the relationship of wonder and anxiety let’s start with Annaka Harris’s book I Wonder. Annaka is passionate about wanting adults to let children experience mystery and wonder without pushing them to come to immediate definitive conclusions about what they are experiencing—that’s what’s demonstrated when the mom answers her young daughter’s question about gravity. In her author’s note she writes: “I believe that one of the most important gifts we can give our children is the confidence to say, ‘I don’t know.’ We live in a society where people are uncomfortable with not knowing. Children aren’t taught to say “I don’t know,” and honestly … it is rarely modeled for them. They too often see adults avoiding questions and fabricating answers, out of either embarrassment or fear, and this comes at a price. When children are embarrassed by or afraid of the feeling of not knowing, they are preoccupied with escaping their discomfort, rather than being motivated to learn. This robs them of the joy of curiosity [and wonder].” Authentically expressing “I don’t know” from time to time doesn’t have to result in anxiety. Instead we could embrace “I don’t know” when we don’t know something and begin to wonder about whatever it is we don’t know, with open-hearted curiosity, interest, imagination and exploration. When we do that something wonder-full can happen.
When I was young, I would go out into the cow fields,exploring whatever was out there. I found blackberry bushes, black racer snakes, various types of turtles, horned toads, frogs in various stages of development, rattle snakes, rabbits, and of course cows, with their delightful, at least to an 7-year-old boy, by products. Ever used a cow patty as a frisbee? I looked at, followed, captured, let go, and embraced the strangeness of the world around me. I don’t recall any anxiety while I wandered and wondered. On the other hand, my mother would probably have had a heart-attack if she knew all the things I did and places I went as a child. My curiosity about everything was off the charts. That’s not to say I didn’t study, do my homework and participate in swim team, soccer, chess club and slide rule club. Does anybody remember what a slide rule was? Ok, you can explain it to everyone else during coffee hour. After reading Harris’s book I asked myself when I stopped wondering like I did as a child. And I puzzled over what had taken the place of wondering.
As a preteen, when I was still seeing things in absolutes, it was my perception that I needed to put aside my wondering in order to function effectively in the world. I needed answers to a lot of questions that other people would have to teach me so I could function in the world. A lot of answers. And if I didn’t have the answers, well I was anxious to find them. We seek out answers, because knowing answers helps us feel competent, capable, effective, and safe. But when we don’t know the answers that we feel we need, well that can produce real anxiety. Not knowing how to communicate a need. Not knowing how to get to where we need to go. Not being able to figure out how to fill out a form to get the aid we need.
My wondering also faded as I started to believe that I needed certain new, different, better things to feel okay, rather than valuing things I already had. New and better thingslike a companion—a girlfriend-- and more friends, a new car, a new job, more money. This resulted in perceived need and anxiety when I didn’t get what I desired or couldn’t guarantee that I could keep what I had. In this culture we live in, we are taught from birth to want more and better. Right now!
Over time, I also developed beliefs and accepted certain truths that I felt would help me function in the world, some consciously, some unconsciously. I believed these beliefs and truths would help me feel less anxious, so I no longer needed to wonder; why wonder when you have answers.
How do intangible concepts, personal beliefs or truths effectively aid a person’s responses to anxiety-producing real-world events? Well, think about science, religion, and culture. Science, through research, explains how many physical properties in the world work, like how electricity runs through wires to our homes and provides light, heat, you know. Knowing how electricity works reduces my anxiety about electricity. Religion and culture, through group-based insight and group-based acceptance of certain norms, offers answers about how we should be in relationship with one another and how we should live on this planet, with ideas like the Ten Commandments, the U. S. Constitution, the Golden Rule which is found in one form or another in all major religions, and specific laws that are enforced for the community’s safety. Again knowing these things exist helps me feel safe and less anxious. And then there are personal beliefs and truths based on our own individual experiences that help us function, like when I learned it is probably not a good idea to tell a person I was interested in dating that they are well preserved for their age when they were 21 years old, and I was 15. Lesson learned, less anxious knowing how to talk to girls. As we develop more and more scientific, religious, cultural, and personal beliefs and truths, a lot of things we used to wonder about get answered. And interestingly, instead of all the answers opening up heart-space for new things to wonder about, we instead seem unable to break out of the centrifugal force of finding more answers.
While I was searching for truth and meaning before becoming a Unitarian Universalist, when I found Unitarian Universalism I found people who supported me as a dug more deeply into truth and meaning. I became more willing to accept some level of anxiety so that I could re-embrace wonder, knowing that my flashlight of knowledge looking out into the universe is limited and will always be limited. I’ve accepted that all of us are limited. There are mysteries that we may never find out or that may not be explained in our lifetime. And there are mysteries that we are confronted with every day to which the answers are not factual, cannot be understood through science, but are hinted at only through metaphor. What is beauty? What elicits wonder? What does this experience, whatever this experience is, mean? But even with my willingness to accept some anxiety, there still seemed to be some impediments to my re-embracing wonder.
Let’s talk about the meditation we did today, you know:
“I wonder about life, the universe, and everything.
I wonder why most people treat each other with kindness, with compassion, with love. Etc.
What popped into your head as you heard these statements? For some of us, it might have been a memory of wonder, beauty, or curiosity. However, many of you might have had thoughts like, “There he goes again wondering about the universe.” “I guess he read that book the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” “Who’s he been talking to, most people are not kind, compassionate, or loving.” “Of course creatures evolved, everybody knows that.” “This meditation is all fluff, no real meat to it, nothing in it for me.”
When I first experienced this meditation, I realized something else was blocking my ability to wonder, it was my own internal voices. In particular voices of judgement, fear, and cynicism. When I wrote down my thoughts and feelings, as you did during the meditation, I became aware of those voices and their interference with my wondering. It occurred to me that due to those voices over the years I had, brick by brick, found more and more reasons to give up on wonder and instead embrace anxiety.
Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, describes these three voices this way:
“The Voice of Judgment is intellectual. This is the voice in your head that knows many things and has already reached conclusions about decisions at hand. It likes to label things ‘That approach is flawed and won’t work.’ [or] ‘He won’t support my idea because he is risk averse.’ The voice of judgment tries to seal off the mind and protect the status quo. It shuts down creativity.
The Voice of Cynicism is born of mistrust. This is the voice in your head that is skeptical and certain that everyone is out to protect their own self-interest and violate yours. ‘[Sh]e’s never supported any of my ideas and certainly won’t support this one.’ [or] ‘Just try to get the board to approve that idea!’ The voice of cynicism tries to protect the heart from becoming too vulnerable. If I close myself off to the possibility of cooperation and success, I won’t be disappointed.
The Voice of Fear seeks to prevent us from losing what we already have. This is the whiny voice in your head that is certain you are in danger of losing ground. ‘Let’s just quit while we are ahead’ [or] ‘If we don’t raise this money, our very future is in jeopardy.’ The voice of fear gravitates towards extremes. It shuts down the open will by keeping us in grasping mode, which works against the spiritual stance of surrender. Grasping at what you are in danger of losing keeps you from experiencing … abundance.”
And my friends these voices run amok in anxious times—not unlike the current times we live in. These voices of judgement, fear, and cynicism cultivated in me a closed mind, heart and spirit. They fought against wonder. Acknowledging and releasing these voices on paper opened heart-space within me for wonder. Perhaps acknowledging and releasing these voices will open you up for more wonder as well. Knowing that on the other side of judgment, cynicism and fear lies mystery, curiosity, and possibility.
Letting go of those voices and making time in my life for wonder has offered me the opportunity to open my mind, heart, and spirit to the known and unknown—without over intellectualizing, without being as concerned about desires, without being as anxious about having to know more to function better, and without being locked into certain beliefs or truths —allowing me to really explore and consider the tangible and intangible inside and outside me. This doesn’t mean I have stopped functioning effectively or given up on all my desires, it just means I have more balance in my life now. And I have time to wonder.
When we approach something in the spirit of wonder in nature or when approach something or someone we don’t know about, and there is always so much we don’t know about--we approach it or them with curiosity, open to what the experience might offer us. There’s some pretty fertile soil in the land of wonder, yet too often in our rush to find answers we don’t spend enough time in that fertile soil, simply appreciating the possibilities it offers. Wonder doesn’t need money or possessions or even knowledge. And wonder is apparently good for you.
In recent years, researchers have linked feeling awe and wonder to lower levels of inflammation-inducing proteins called cytokines. High levels of these proteins have been linked to a variety of health issues, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s and clinical depression. University of California Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner wrote “…awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines [which] suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions—a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art—has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.”
In a study involving veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, researchers found that after an awe and wonder-inducing experience (white water rafting), participants reported that “they’re getting along better with their family and friends, they are feeling more connected to their community — all those things we would call social well-being.” (Jeremy Adam Smith, “The Benefits of Feeling Awe”).
Susan Beaumont wrote: “Wonder trumps anxiety. We cannot be filled with wonder and remain anxious at the same time.” Think about that. When was the last time you came across something new or strange, or something you didn’t know about? Were you anxious trying to understand it or did you open yourself to curiosity and wonder? I prefer approaching the new, strange or different with wonder, and I invite you to do the same. So during the next couple of weeks take some time to wonder. Perhaps take few minutes to experience the wonder of what it is be alive. To feel a sense of wonder about the natural world with its seasons and cycles. To rediscover the wonder of your connectedness to all that is. Find out what happens when you take a walk without purpose, when you gaze at something that interests you without a time limit, when you open your heart-space to all that is within and around you, and wonder.