The 1940’s American classic It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of a man (George) about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. An angel intervenes, showing George that his life is significant and the world would have been a completely different place without him. It’s a roller coaster of a story, which got me thinking about the word “wonderful”, full of wonder. We tend to think of wonder as being a positive emotion, associated with warm and fuzzy feelings. But I think wonder is larger than emotion and transcends positive or negative feelings. It’s a state of mind that finds amazement in ANY given moment.
I find this empowering because it unlocks the secrets waiting to be revealed in any and all experiences, even the hard ones, maybe especially the hard ones. We all know you can experience wonder in nature and through creativity, and its right to seek them there. But what if wonder was something that could fill your life in moments of chaos and confusion as well.
Let me illustrate with a milestone in our family. This year our three kids are turning, 18, 13 and 10, all big milestones. Our oldest is leaving for College. Its making me reflective on the miracle of his life and our connection which is stronger than distance. This is the wonder of it for me.
18 years ago, I contributed a single cell to the miracle of new life. The nucleus in the center of the cell that contained the DNA was so small it was invisible to the naked eye. And yet if you unraveled the DNA of this single cell, unwound and uncoiled it, it would stretch to over six feet long. Now 18 years later I look eye to six foot high eye with this amazing guy, eye to eye with the miracle of life. In his case, a six foot bundle of creative potential with the world at his feet. The wonder of it is that we are connected by a single cell, and now 18 years of shared experience. Nothing can change this. It truly IS a wonderful life.
Then I lower my gaze to my second son, and I see a five foot bundle of free thinking self reflection who lives wonder out loud. He sees things that I don’t see, wonders things that never entered my head. I am connected to him by a single cell, invisible to the naked eye and 13 years of shared experience. Nothing can change this. Then I lower my gaze still further to my four foot miracle of sweetness with my heart wrapped around her finger like strands of DNA. She is a miracle of human gentleness and asks the world’s best questions. A single cell and 10 years of shared experience that nothing can change.
Imagine if we took all the DNA from all the 50 trillion cells in each of their 4, 5 and 6 foot bodies, and unraveled and uncoiled it, it would stretch to the moon and back multiple times. It’s no accident that this is also the amount that I love them. To the moon and back…. multiple times. Along with Meg, with whom I have no cellular connection but 20 years of life connection, the five of us are strands in wonder’s web.
It is a wonderful life, and through any ups and downs, separations and changes, the wonder of this connection moves me beyond words. When times are hard, this wonder gives me perspective, like a son leaving for College or a youngest daughter growing up.
Wonder doesn’t discriminate between positive and negative. Everything is a miracle to wonder because it is the way it is. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a famous book called Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. The inspiration for the title comes from the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Without going into detail, the book points to the wonder of the way things are. It suggests that the evolution of life, rewound and replayed multiple times, would create a different world each time, as the angel told George in the movie.
The wonder of life is that it is life, and you get to choose the meaning by creating a life of meaning. It’s like this neat Opus and Auggie cartoon.
Opus, the penguin, is sitting out under the night sky looking up at the stars with his human friend Auggie. Opus says, “Auggie, ol’ buddy…ever wonder how all of this came to be?” Auggie says, “You don’t believe in God, Opus?” “I’m a penguin. We’re not sure what we believe in….except purpose. We believe in having a purpose. Also lots of squid.” Auggie counters, “That’s ridiculous. If you think this is all just a cosmic accident, you’re left purposeless!” And Opus retorts, “I’m not purposeless!”
As Auggie lies down in the grass, Auggie mutters, “Yeah, well, if we really are merely atoms bumping around by chance, there’s little hope for finding meaning in life.” He yawns and, presumably, is soon asleep.
In the next frame, a few big fat rain drops are falling. Opus looks up at the sky, catches a raindrop in his hand and says, “Ah. LIFE’S MEANING [shown in bolded letters].”
Next, we see Opus gently placing his big puffy hat under Auggie’s sleeping head for a pillow, saying “Maybe it’s not so much found…” and, then, Opus takes his coat off and is laying it over Auggie to cover him.
In the final frame, the rain is pouring down and Opus is standing in the rain, holding his umbrella over the still-sleeping Auggie. Opus concludes, “Maybe it’s not so much found…as it is made.” Maybe the meaning in life is not so much found, as it is made.
Richard Bach read my mind with these words,
The meaning I picked, the one that changed my life: Overcome fear, behold wonder.