So you’re reading the paper, maybe enjoying a cup of coffee. The teak green is lush. The air is clear. It’s going to be a great semester.
But the noise doesn’t last. Around mid-semester (earlier for me) depression creeps in. When it’s happened in the past, I’ve tried to motivate myself with rewards. Complete a task, watch a show. Study for a quiz, eat a cookie. Sometimes, I bring out the disciplinarian, strap myself to a chair, and deliver the 30 lashes necessary to pass a project. Both methods can work. But here’s another weapon to add to your arsenal of sugar and chains: wonder.
Consider a child. They often live in strange situations. The world unfolds, wonder after wonder. Every fly is a monster, every butterfly is a wonder. Children can toss it in the air or play hide and seek or see a magic trick ten times, and say, “Again, again!” They shout. for another ten. Of course, at some point, we have to get rid of childish things. But there is a part of us all that marvels at the wetness of the water, the starry sky, and the ants climbing the hills. That part makes it fun to be surprised.
What happened to that wonder? Author GK Chesterton quoted an observant colleague as saying, “So many people have brilliant children and all grown-ups are such poor ones.” Of course Chesterton never visited Tech. But about the schools “again, again!” There is something that changes happiness. Exercise-Booklet Slap “Again, Again!” Others argue that our current “factory-model education system” was designed in the 19th century to produce transparent, compliant workers on the assembly line.
In such a system we are rewarded for giving good answers, not for asking good questions. We’ve been trained to be weak in imitation of Google, built to regurgitate answers that can easily be found online, even though asking the best questions is one of the few things Google can’t do. A foundation of knowledge is, of course, essential to skilled education. However, one teacher asked, “What question is burning inside you?” When was the last time he asked? No, we mostly graduated to the ability to apply the quadratic formula, to identify the role of mitochondria (spoiler alert: the powerhouse of the cell), to find state names on a map. A few teachers may have gone so far as to quench our curiosity. I’ve had my fair share of scoldings for asking “too many questions” (in my case, the scoldings were probably undeserved). Such treatment turns inquisitive children into rats in cages, conditioned to drink from the dripping bottle of knowledge and run on the practice instructor’s wheel.
But the most dangerous obstacle to practicing wonder might not be what you expect. I only recently realized the source. Chesterton (again) describes the work of Charles Dickens as saying that humility is “the only basis of happiness.” What Dickens describes throughout his writing is “the experience of primal innocence that is in all things astonishing.” If the medicine is humility, the poison is pride. When do I feel most resentful, even the slightest bit fearful or “at” him? As I sit on the throne of judgment, looking at the pions and molecules I once admired so much. Sam complains that I deserve better by nature than I am now. Complaining about the food, the workload, the commute, the weather—any target will do.
But I remember one afternoon a year ago when I received my admissions decision from Tech. My husband and I both misread the email – I didn’t understand. After reading it closely, we both hugged each other and danced on the office carpet. I also remember my first steps on Tech Green. I felt like the frozen earth opened up before me, the sun rose on my arm and the downtown Atlanta sky presented itself on a silver platter. I feel very fortunate to join this elite institution among the brightest and most energetic students in the country. At some point, you’ve probably felt this too.
But if privilege is normal, it’s easier to fall into the temptation of entitlement, and the sense of entitlement will cloud everything. We can still regain our sense of wonder. Here are a few ways to get started.
1. Change “have to” to “have to”: Every day, when you write your to-do list, shift your thinking from these things I have to do. These are the things I need to do. Instead of saying, “I need to do my physics homework,” I now say, “I’m going to improve my physics skills and knowledge at one of the best schools in the country.” Instead of saying “I need to find an internship”, consider “I want to find dream jobs at dream companies or at least take my first steps towards them”. It’s a slight change in language. But it’s a big change in perspective. Once you realize that the world is full of possibilities and that you are an active participant in exploring and shaping your life at one of the world’s best training locations, you’ll evoke that old-fashioned sense of adventure.
2. Favor questions over answers: Whatever I say, they still focus on finding a good answer. Because questions won’t help you solve your calculus problem. Or will they? I’ve found that, in solving any difficult problem, the first step is, in fact, to write down all the questions I have about it. I give myself seven minutes to write down everything I need to know to solve the puzzle. In doing so, I break down complex issues into bite-sized levels that even I can follow. Note that a paper is nothing more than a series of paragraphs that answer smaller questions (eg, who, what, when, where, how, why).
(Usually the biggest why). You can apply this approach to any field.
3. Meditate ∞: Whether you subscribe to a belief system or not, you really do
Even if you don’t believe in a spiritual afterlife, your physical body will last for a long time, the atoms in it will be rearranged and recycled back to earth. (See The Lion King’s “Circle of Life”).
For those who believe in the afterlife, you know your soul is eternal. If this is true, according to CS Lewis, the people we meet every day – the driver of the Stinger
The shuttle, the lady at the Blue Donkey Cafe, who makes your delicious iced coffee, and yes, even your professors – they’re not mere mortals. It is immortal to play with, to study, to mock, to use.
Empires fall, constitutions crumble and scientific revolutions are overturned, but your soul endures. If so, you probably have your five- and ten-year plans. But have you thought about making your 10,000 year plan? Immortality suggests that we understand our million-year-old self and beyond, and live in a way that helps us treat our immortal neighbors in the same way.
Do these things (among others) and before long, you’ll regain that fantastic player you used to be. You can still have too much homework and the occasional bad professor, and look — there’s nothing we can do about commuting on I-85. But surprisingly, exercise and you’ll find yourself seeing the world through new eyes again and again, even on long trips.