Wonder and Words

“Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.”

– Abraham Joshua Heschel

The desire to doubt, so that we might not err, is great. But doubt is only defense. We must be more than critics, especially of ourselves. Wonder, the state of curious awe that is receptive to experience without judgement, takes us deep into the world, deep into ourselves, and deep into our encounters with others. It is in the depths of wonder that we draw from the wellspring of inspiration. Wonder is generous and it is our most native state. We wondered before we spoke.

Our words come after wonder. Those words move us from the solitary to the social. Whatever else we are, we are beings that must speak and must be heard. Our society, all societies, are built on this fundamental human truth of language. The ebb and flow of our everyday occurs in a current of sounds that we instinctually imbue with meaning, and through these we navigate ourselves through life.These sounds transmit the very vibrations of another’s being through air, their inflections, their meter, their volume, their very presence is encountered. Our voices attune our bodies to one another.

When we write, we condense these sounds to shape and form, letters, words, lines—to preserve and transmit our ideas through time. This process organizes our thoughts, it assembles them, imparts a force and life to them that has no limits in space and time. It also strips our literal voice and physical presence, making our meaning more obscured, and making a permanent artifact of what was a process and an experience. Our words go forth minus our bodies—minus our being. They live a life apart from us. When we read another’s words we are left to consider their inflection, their meter, their volume, the timbre and tone of their voice that is now alien to us. Even the words that we find most precious leave much of their essence inaccessible to us. We fill the absence with our own voice, or an imagined voice. We hear but an echo but find it precious still. We must meet the other without their presence and attune our minds outside of time and space. This is how the written word built the modern world. It has power, and worth, and a price.

The words we write or speak are the worth we offer to others, and the words we hear or read are the worth that we receive. We are responsible for both. The richness of our lives may be measured by the richness of this exchange. To whom do we turn our attention? What stories do we share? Whose works do we read? Whose air do we share? These questions cause me to wonder, and cause me to cast off the cautiousness of private contemplation in order to offer my own words—not to measure their worth, but to invite a richer exchange of ideas. It is not without risk. I hope it is not without worth.

Whatever the worth of words may be, and I believe that value to be great, the worth of a single person is infinitely greater. Let us enrich the wellbeing of each other and the world with our words. Let our words impoverish none. Let us never silence our voice, turn our ear, our eyes, or our bodies when they are needed to uphold the worth of another. Let our words have worth, and let us wonder richer selves together.