The power of wonder

A longer blog, dedicated to my niece, Maya, fixer extraordinaire, on the occasion of her birthday.

Composer Stuart J. Sharp’s account in Saturday’s Guardian (18th May, 2013) about how a dream he had transformed his life is inspiring at multiple levels. It all starts with listening. Music has the power to reach any soul, whatever our situation in life. Dreams are sometimes not only memorable, but moving and motivating. Grief and mourning can have a creative expression. Finally, in an age where we seem to be so conflicted and confused by the debate on God, religion and science, it is just so uplifting to find common ground between believers and non-believers on this simple, universal phenomenon: wonder.

Just what kind of emotion is “wonder”? I see emotions as not just important in their own right (and emotional intelligence is about recognition, expression and constructive use of emotion), but a conduit between different worlds. Not surprisingly in Jewish mysticism, the heart is the route to the soul.

Descartes’ “wonder” and Spinoza’s “joy” are fundamental to their ethics of the passions. Thanks to Luce Irigaray, one of our greatest contemporary thinkers on sexual difference, we learn about the dangers of “splitting our life, our bodies, our language, our breath into several worlds.” Irigaray goes on to draw on Descartes’ little known yet magisterial work “The Passions of the Soul” to re-discover the power of wonder. Her insight is brilliant, “And there is no window, no sense remaining open on, or with, the world, the Other, the other. In order to dwell within it, transform it. What is lacking there in terms of the passions is wonder.”

Irigaray argues that wonder is “the motivating force behind mobility in all its dimensions. From its most vegetative to its most sublime functions, the living being has need of wonder to move.”

Descartes describes wonder as the “first of all the passions”, “…a sudden surprise of the soul which causes it to apply itself to consider with attention the objects which seem to it rare and extraordinary.” I have tracked back as many of my personal memories
of “wonder” as I can, and draw this conclusion: it is a cut above all other emotions in that it has no opposite, and unlike any other emotion it is by definition not captured by bias, predisposition or affiliation. It is quite simply, loud or quiet, the expression of what we feel when we utter that three-letter word, “Wow!”

How often do we really make space for the “rare and extraordinary”? One of my New Year resolutions was to open myself to “pleasant suprises”. It has proved more fecund than I could have possibly imagined.

Irigaray makes a most telling point: wonder is “indispensable not only to life but also or still to the creation of an ethics. Notably of and through sexual difference. This other, male or female, should surprise us again and again, appear to us as new, very different from what we knew or what we thought he or should be….Wonder goes beyond that which is or is not suitable for us.”

I am sometimes asked what my craft, communications, inspires. When done well, I think that it has much in common with the power of alchemy, the mysterious art of turning base metals into gold. It is also a creative response to what is forever missing or systematically elusive. Spinoza said that nature abhors a vacuum. We see this all the time in communications. Where there is a lack of communication, or communication is not good enough, misinformation and mistrust take over. So effective communication is integral to civilised existence.

One of my producers on BBC Newsdesk, BBC World’s pioneering programme between 1995 and 1997, which combined breaking news, analysis, interpretation and comment, Damien Magee, aptly expressed that sinking, yet stirring, feeling at the start of one our shifts at 6 am, “As a news producer, you have to create something out of nothing – and fast.” When I hear myself or colleagues complaining about a lack of resources, I try to turn the worry on its head: what can we do differently with what we have? Sometimes we have to ask ourselves whether we are trying to solve the right problem.

Being resourceful brings out a defiance and determination to succeed despite the odds: we can be active in the face of a resources challenge. The OU’s students show this all the time.

Hosting an event last November to celebrate the success of our Open University students who were Olympians or Paralympians in the London Games, I was struck by their exceptional will and resolve to succeed. And yes, listening to their stories struck all of us with a sense of wonder at the triumph of the human will and the beauty of realising one’s full potential. Our students’ actions spoke louder than any words, but their words were truly valuable too. They expressed what so many of us long to express. Whatever challenges they had successfully overcome, they exuded a sense that with commitment and discipline, and relentless focus, they could harness their energies and surmount what for most people is seemingly impossible.

Last night, I represented The Open University at a dinner of the Association of Open University Graduates (AOUG) to celebrate its 25th anniversary. As well as being made to feel very welcome, I was also reminded of the remarkable achievements of its founders, including its founding chairman, Olga Camm. We were each asked to write in a book our names and any reflections. I was touched by the endless references to sweet memories of studying at the OU. One of our graduates noted how much studying at the OU had changed his life. I asked him in what way, and he told me, “Confidence. After studying social sciences at the OU, I felt more confident, and that changed my life.”

As professional communicators, we try to articulate what cannot easily or ever be adequately conveyed. When we struggle to communicate, or are just too effortlessly eloquent and smooth in our communication, we betray what we are trying to give expression to. “Betray” is a strong word, but we can – all too conveniently- fail to confront subtle acts of betrayal in our lives. We are masters of imperfect translation, condemned perhaps not to be able to communicate as clearly, truthfully or meaningfully as we might wish – a humbling thought, yet one that spurs us to continuous improvement. Sometimes we achieve poetry.

Hence the delight when we hear a piece of music, observe a sunrise or sunset, feel the joy of a loved one (so common at OU degree ceremonies, the antithesis of schadenfreude) or just marvel when we cook something quite delicious out of a few simple ingredients, because at that moment, there is wonder – and all judgment is temporarily suspended.

With professional communications, there clearly is a functional side, a spectrum spanning basic understanding, and moving on to different degrees of proficiency and expertise. But usually less obvious, in my experience, there is also a spiritual, if not mystical side, a sphere in which we access and channel different influences. That’s why I say to be an effective influencer, one has to let oneself be influenced.

Beneath all the symptoms of our suffering society lies what really matters. The best communications are for a cause or something or somebody beyond ourselves. They are acts of generosity. The ability to connect, and to be connected, is common to both. Ethics have to be at the heart of such a process to render it a force for good.

Luce Irigaray, “An Ethics of Sexual Difference”. First published in France in 1984 by Les Editions de Minuit, and by Continuum in 2004. Quotations above drawn from Chapter 2, and an essay entitled “Wonder: A Reading of Descartes, The Passions of the Soul” pp 62-70.

Quotations from Descartes are taken from The Passions of the Soul, included in The Philosophical Works of Descartes vol 1, translated by E.S.Haldane and G.R.T.Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931).

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