Thursday, February 2, 2017

Surprised by Wonder

Every now and again, I am struck by a sense of overwhelming pleasure in the existence of the world, one that usually hits me out of nowhere.

The sense of wonder at existence itself is something that, I imagine, all of us feel. What surprises me is that, in my experience, it's not a single sensation but it comes in different 'flavours'.

Trying to describe the particular sensation I mean right now is difficult, because I don't want to make it sound too lofty. It's not really something that goes with a starry sky or the light of dawn or the gurgle of a newborn baby.

In fact, it always seems to hit me at the least likely moments, and is prompted by the least likely sights.

Last year I watched Life Itself, the film documentary which celebrated the life of Roger Ebert. I was so eager to see this movie that I asked the film librarian to get it into the university library where I work. (I've been vindicated by the fact that it's been borrowed by others, something not necessarily true of any particular library acquisition.) It's a very good movie. I recommend it.

Much of the movie described Roger Ebert's rivalry and friendship with Gene Siskel, fellow Chicago film critic and co-host of Sneak Previews and At the Movies.

Siskel and Ebert

Amongst the footage included from those shows, there was one very brief scene which showed Gene Siskel-- a tall, balding man-- buying popcorn in the popcorn shop beside the studio.

I found myself thinking about this scene (which lasts all of five seconds or so) again and again, in the days after watching the movie, and even for a long time after that. For some reason, it filled me with delight-- the very delight I'm trying to describe in this post.

The reaction that is always evoked by such a sight (and I can't even describe what 'such a sight' means here) goes something along these lines: "There's this, at least. Once in history a man stood in a popcorn shop. Even if this was somehow all that ever was, it would be worthwhile. Even if the world disappears tomorrow, there was this."

(There is, of course, a more mundane explanation for my delight in this scene. The idea of buying popcorn as part of your job is quite delightful. But that's incidental.) 

It isn't just nothingness that I measure these random sight against. It's pain, sickness, conflict, war, danger, starvation, and all the other things that could so easily take their place.

I feel this all the time.  Sometimes when I am in the library, I find myself looking at the students walking about and sitting studying at laptops, and I think: "All of them will live another day, most probably. All of them feel safe within these walls. They walk past each other calmly and don't expect to be attacked or challenged in any way. They are warm, dry, fed, sheltered. They are not firing guns at each other, dying of a plague, or performing slave labour."

Perhaps this is one reason I am a conservative. I never take running water, electricity, food, emergency services, peace, freedom and all the other fundamentals for granted. The scenes of chaos that we see in apocalyptic horror movies almost seem like the expected thing to me.

And then I will see something-- a woman sitting in a coffee shop during the morning rush hour, a thirty-year-old photograph showing a group of smiling delegates at a conference, a photograph of a happy family on the box of a board game-- that makes me feel something even more, a kind of ecstasy, an immense gratitude that there is, at least, this. Even if there is nothing else, there is this.

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