Recapture the Wonder
- Thursday, November 13, 2003
The tragedy with growing up is not that we lose childishness in its simplicity, but that we lose childlikeness in its sublimity.
It happened again the other day as we were in one of the teeming cities of our land. My wife and I were walking hurriedly to keep an appointment. We were elbowing our way through the mass of people, bobbing and weaving, a step here and a turn there, making the best speed we could. When waves of humanity descend from every direction it is inevitable for one to feel like a minute drop in a mighty torrent-unobserved, unimportant, almost nonexistent. It is the way with crowds. Such settings at once multiply and diminish the individual.
Yet one man stood out, and we could not help but find our gaze, almost with guilt, riveted upon his stooping figure. Our pace and, yes, our heartbeat, irresistibly slowed. We were both silent as we watched him-unkempt, unwashed, unshaven, and, I suppose, uncaring-as he burrowed through the garbage can on the sidewalk, tearing open any paper bag that might contain remnants of food. This is sobering to see anywhere, yet even more so in a land whose name is synonymous with abundance. But there he was, foraging almost like an animal for any edible morsel and stuffing it into his mouth.
Whenever we see a person whose whole being reveals the marks of such impoverishment my wife remarks, "To think that he was once a baby, held in the arms of his mother while she dreamed great dreams for him." I suppose that only from a mother would these sentiments flow at such a sight. Her words conjure up the image of a mother lovingly cradling her tiny infant and stroking his face while she sings to him about his future. Being human we assume that hopes and dreams are made for us and that we are made for them. In some cultures parents consult astrologers and determine the baby's name according to planetary alignments, and they celebrate with endless ceremonies to ensure a wonderful future. A baby throbbing with life is embodied promise. The birth day gives birth to more than a life-it gives birth to new hopes.
Some analysts of human psychology even go so far as to say that it is this distinctive of the human mind, its grand potential for dreaming and pursuing those dreams, that sets us apart from all other entities. We look into the future not just whimsically but with purpose and design. Our imaginations encourage us to aspire, hope, express ourselves, long for the fulfillment of dreams, wish, and plan. First, others dream for us; then the dream is our own. First, we see circumstances; then opportunities. And so, when we are confronted by a sight such as this pathetic, elderly man searching for sustenance in a garbage heap, we conclude that his life has fallen short of the future he could have had.
Skeptics would use a tragedy like this to point to the absence of God in the human experience. "Where is God in such disfigurement?" they will argue. "How can one blame this man for seeing no purpose and fulfillment in being alive?"
I think it is here that we make our first very subtle mistake, both in our logic and in our experience. It is shallow reasoning to deduce that because pain or unfulfilled dreams have brought disappointment to experience, life itself must be hollow and purposeless. In fact, this conclusion may miss the deeper problem within our common struggle to find something in life of ultimate purpose. Let me change the illustration to make the point.
Attaining the Dream
An acquaintance of mine was visiting France's famous art gallery, the Louvre. As he was walking silently from room to room, he saw a group of blind students being led by their teacher. Blind students in an art gallery cannot but draw one's curiosity. But the instructor became their eyes, going to great lengths to describe each painting. Then he led them to a room where the statue of an ancient Greek Olympic athlete stood on a pedestal. The teacher took each student's hand, one by one, and guided it so that the student could feel the muscle-bound figure and the "perfect physique" of this specimen. The young boys were awe-stricken just to touch the powerful body, contoured down to its very veins in stone, all asking if they could feel his muscles once more. Then some of these spindly-legged youngsters started to feel each other's thin arms and giggled and chuckled at the difference. Their faces said it all: "What must it be like to have that physique? That's life the way it was meant to be. You have that and you have everything."
It is here that we grasp the underlying struggle common to both, though in appearance and accomplishment the impoverished old man and the idolized young athlete are worlds apart. No one, for example, would look at the muscular giant and say, "How can there be a God when a man like this looks so good?" No, success and prowess do not logically provoke skepticism about God's existence. But they may lead to an easy delusion-that this well-built champion is a thoroughly fulfilled individual and that life is wonderful for a person so obviously blessed with an enviable physique. Wretchedness and failure understandably breed cynicism. Power and beauty, we assume, bring contentment. One has lost all hope for what he would make of his life; the other has attained the ideal. But the question emerges, Has he really? On the surface it would appear to be true. Yet I have my doubts.
You see, fulfilled dreams are not necessarily fulfilled hopes. Attainment and fulfillment are not the same. Many dream and wish for the attainments that would make us the envy of our world. Careers, positions, possessions, romance . . . these are real goals, pursued by the vast majority who are deluded into believing that succeeding in these areas brings fulfillment. But deep within there is some stronger longing, sometimes even hard to pinpoint. We know there is a vacuum, a space of huge proportions that seeks a state of mind that attainments cannot fill. That dream of ultimate fulfillment is intangible but recognizable, indefinable but felt, verbalized but imprecise, visualized but blurred, inestimable but traded in for something less, something daily. I suggest it is the greatest pursuit of every life, consciously or unconsciously, and it is not mitigated by one's worldly success. That pursuit is the grand theme of this book.
We pity the man at the garbage dump because his impoverishment is stark and his disfigurement is visible. But then we sit in front of our television screens or in movie theaters, or thumb through our fashion magazines eyeing symbols of beauty and success-the icons of our time-and we do not see the scavenging that goes on within them, the searching through every success to find something of transcending worth, the plastic smiles, the contoured shapes, the schizoid hungers for privacy and recognition at the same time. Dreams attained? I think not. They are still looking for "somewhere, over the rainbow."
I believe that it is possible that those who have attained every dream may be at least as impoverished as the man at the dump-perhaps even more-as they bask in the accolades, knowing that the charade is shattered by the aloneness within them. We soon realize that the contrast between the two may only be in the access to "things" and in the adulation received, and that it is not necessarily true that in one the greatest hunger-not only to dream, but for the dream to deliver what was hoped for-has been fulfilled. That is the ultimate hope.
What is it that we want the dream to deliver? I would like to call it wonder, when life and daily living are possessed and driven by that sense which keeps the emotions in the balance of enchantment with reality. Can life be in tune with reality and also be enchanting without being escapist? It is this very hope that often lies in ruins even though we have attained our personal goals, professionally or economically. All too soon, for so many of us, wonder is swallowed up by wonder-killing reason or experience.
Excerpted from Recapture the Wonder by Ravi Zacharias.
Integrity Publishers, 2003
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