We come into the world scarred and full of wonder. We bring with us the unhealed wounds, anxieties, and traumas of our ancestors. Already in the womb, our DNA is methylated by whatever discomfort, discord, or distress existed in the environment of and around our mothers. We are born afraid of things that we have not yet encountered because our ancestors were afraid of these things. We are born predisposed to certain kinds of illnesses and dis-ease. Our deaths are already recorded in the roots of our genealogies. So we come into the world scarred. Marked. De-formed. And yet. And yet we come so full of wonder. We don’t come seeking specific answers or solutions to specific questions or problems, we come with an open curiosity. We come to the world playfully. We come predisposed to awe and laughter. And love. We come into the world scarred but full of wonder and loving unconditionally. This is the stage of childhood. Especially early childhood. Although some children are given no opportunity at all to have a childhood.
Because, inevitably and quickly, we also experience our own intimately personal pain, grief, and loss. Often, unbeknownst to us as young children, this is exacerbated and looped into the unhealed wounds we have inherited from our ancestors. Even so, we now personally experience our own woundedness, brokenness, and trauma. In response to these experiences, we seek two things: comfort and understanding. When we are comforted, we are soothed, relieved, and calmed. The terror, distress, and unbearable element of what we have suffered is removed. Once again, we feel “okay.” But having learned that it is possible to feel very, very “not okay,” having learned we can feel the opposite of okay, we also seek to understand what caused our suffering, why that suffering happened to us specifically, and what we can do in order to prevent that kind of suffering from occurring again. We ask: “What happened?” “How did it happen?” “Why did it happen to me?” and “What can I do in order to make sure this never happens again?” In this way, we transition from the open curiosity, amazement, and gratitude that accompany wonder to the domain of knowledge. We become invested in efforts to make sense of things. And our sense-making work begins to erect invisible walls between the selves we understand ourselves to be and other things. We think this will help keep us safe. Having had a taste of devastation, we try to make enough sense of things so that we cannot ever be devastated again. We want an all-encompassing map of meaning so that we cannot be caught off guard. Bad things may still happen, but if they fit into our map of meaning, then they will not traumatize us. We can roll with them. Good things can happen, too, but not like the wonder we may have once experienced. We erect walls to try and protect ourselves from the horror, but we end up barricading ourselves against the wonder. This, I think, is a project that spans from young adulthood until middle age.
The problem is that there are always cracks in the walls we throw up as we build fortresses of knowledge and sense. And more always slips through these cracks than we believe possible. Big things. Death and illness and betrayal and loneliness and disappointment and exhaustion and dreams endlessly deferred or lost forever. Whenever a big thing slips through, it rattles our entire fortress. We begin to feel like we are building castles in the sand. We patch holes, but other holes appear. We try to start again somewhere else and get the same result. At this point we face a choice. We can continue to double-down on our sense-making efforts and conclude that we just need a more perfect knowledge of everything, a more complete picture of things, a more tightly monitored, studied, and surveilled milieu, and everything will be okay forever. Given the ways in which knowledge and sense making have provided us with so much security—sometimes the only imaginable security—against the unspeakable and the unknown up until this point, it’s very tempting to think this way and pick this option. In fact, many people do this and remain at this stage for the rest of their lives.
But there is another option. This option requires us to move towards the unknown or, rather, invite the unknown back into ourselves. Our experiences of trauma and suffering have taught us to fear the unknown and so pursuing this option requires courage or desperation (or both—they often go together). Instead of constantly shoring up the cracks in our fortresses of meaning, instead of doubling-down on our efforts to make sense of things, we can, instead, abandon those efforts. We can invite the unknown back into our lives by pursuing a process of unknowing the knowledge we have accumulated around ourselves. This is not the same thing as suggesting that some kind of primordial “innocence” can be regained if we just forget about everything we’ve learned in life. It is also not a call to give up every act of sense-making. After all, if you decide to forget that cars follow certain rules and that getting struck by a car will kill you if you start wandering around on the highway, you’re not going to live very long. Instead, what this means is tearing down the walls of sense-making knowledge we have built up around ourselves, in part by recognize the arbitrary nature of their construction, in part by recognizing that all our efforts at sense-making never kept us all that safe anyway, so that we can let the wonder back in. This is wonder now experienced after, with, and alongside of everything else. It is not the same wonder as before. We have seen the showers at Auschwitz and the rows of child-sized bathtubs at the Indian Residential Schools run by the Canadian government and churches. We have seen what happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima. We watched the last Northern White Rhinoceros die. We know about children born without skin or with organs on the outside or as little more than bags of pulp after the Americans did nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll or, again, after they coated their munitions with radioactive material at Fallujah. And even we ourselves, we know what it is to be beaten, to be abandoned, to be raped, to be unconsoled. Is it possible or permissible to feel wonder after Auschwitz? Can one feel gratitude as the Sixth Great Extinction of life on earth unfolds around us? Is it possible for the colonizers and the colonized to feel awe in the midst of the ongoing and ruthlessly genocidal illegal occupation of Turtle Island? Or in a war zone? And can I myself, the one beaten, raped, abandoned, and left-for-dead return to the world with a sense of open curiosity? I believe that the answer to all of these questions is yes. A careful and qualified yes, but yes nonetheless. And it is those who attain the elder stage of life who demonstrate this to us and who embody the wisdom (not knowledge) of this yes. A wisdom foreshadowed by the very young, now brought to fruition by the very old (although not all who grow old become elders, for as I said above, not all who grow old arrive at this stage). The wisdom of the elders is found, in part, in the realization that, while the horror has been our intimate companion on the road of life, so also has the wonder and, more often than not, our efforts to keep the horror away, apart from failing, have actually just closed us off from the wonder. So, after all our sense and sense-making has taken us as far as we can go which, after, is not very far, we kick them away like Wittgenstein’s ladder, and return to the wonder. We return not as those who have their innocence restored, but as those brought back from the dead with heads still shaved, numbers still tattooed on our forearms, bruises from standard-issue police boots still on our chests, and holes still in our hands and our feet.
But that is not all. Some of us also come back from the dead with a Waffen-SS blood group tattoo on our upper arm, with the Canadian flag on our passport, and with the motto “Praise Jesus” or “Heil Hitler” or “God Bless America” fresh on our lips. The miracle and scandal of this is that both the oppressed and the oppressor, both the colonized and the colonizer, can rediscover wonder, awe, gratitude, curiosity, and love. This statement is so fraught with the potential to be misused that I almost didn’t write it. Because I don’t want to equate the sufferings of the oppressed and the oppressors, although I do want to recognize that all of us, each one of us, suffers. And I also don’t want to suggest that wonder, awe, gratitude, curiosity, and love are somehow things that can elevate us to a place where we exist outside of the context of oppression. Only the never-ending struggle to end oppression can give us glimpses of such a place. That place is a material space, carved out by those who engage in acts of mutually liberating solidarity and resistance as they create secret places of respite and practice traditions and ways of being in relationship with others that proleptically embody the future present, while daily fighting the good fight. Additionally, I do not want to advocate for another variation on the cheap grace and the forgiveness of sins that Christianity has offered oppressors and colonizers on a golden platter for the last two millennia. Recovering wonder, awe, gratitude, curiosity, and love does not exculpate a person from guilt, complicity, responsibility, or from being held accountable.
Nevertheless, the oppressor may discover that the context of oppression—a context that benefits them—is just as overwhelming and impossible for them to overcome as it is for many of the oppressed who also fight against the same context. Oppression is designed to trap both oppressors and oppressed as oppressors and oppressed (although, again, how this trap is experienced by both of these parties is very different—it’s the difference between being trapped at a five-star, all-inclusive resort and being trapped in a septic tank slowly but surely filling with shit). Furthermore, though it is important for us, especially those of us who are White, cis-gendered, heterosexual men of Christian descent, to recover a sense of collective identity, it is also true that each one of us is only one of us and is very, very small, fragile, and almost (but not quite—and this is a very significant not quite) entirely powerless. It’s an aporia we are constantly navigating between interconnectedness and aloneness, between being one of the many and being one, between being part of something bigger and being our own something as well.
Our movement back to the wonder does not mean forgetting or unknowing these things. It does not mean forgetting all we have loved and lost. It does not mean forgetting that we have gone through that is unforgettable—and unforgettable even if we have longed and tried and tried and tried to forget it. Because, after all, so many of our efforts to make sense of things, many of our maps of meaning, are constructed in order to try and make us forget the traumatic core of our traumas. We want to forget how it felt to be inconsolable, to have the world we thought was safe or made sense washed away from us. We want to forget that we have been (and perhaps still are?) devastated. We want to forget what was unbearable about our pain. Because who can bear the unbearable? Thus, not only are our maps of meaning artificial, they are also dishonest. They are premised upon forgetting the unforgettable, denying the undeniable, making sense of the nonsensical, and bearing the unbearable. Of course, our motives here are understandable and deserving of compassion—it is good to desire to cease suffering and the valourisation of suffering qua suffering has no place here, even though I should also emphasize that oppressors should not mistake their discomfort around being confronted by oppression with suffering—but few aphorisms are as true as the statement that “hell is paved with good intentions.” Our admirable intention to cease suffering by building a world that makes sense so that we can be safe within it, ends up just trapping us in a hell devoid of wonder. Unknowing, in other words, is not about unknowing what we have experienced or continue to experience, it is about unknowing how we have made sense of those experiences so that that wonder and awe can come back in.
When the wonder and awe return, so does gratitude and a gentle, tender-hearted form of love. This has parallels to the unconditional love we show others when we are very young children but it is not the same. As young children, we will love almost anyone, including persistent abusers, unconditionally—first without an awareness that we are doing so, second because we come to believe that we deserve the abuse they heap upon us, third, because we think if we just love them enough they will stop being abusive—and often this unconditional love of our abusers translates into long years of self-harm, cycling through various abusive relationships, and ultimately having the ways in which we love twisted into something both very conditional and extremely harmful to ourselves and others. The gentle and tender-hearted love we rediscover as the wonder, awe, gratitude, and curiosity return to us, is not naïve in these ways. It is aware of all these things. But it also aware of the ubiquity of suffering, how everyone feels like they are trying as hard as they can already, how we are all grieving losses we do not know how to recover from, and how broken-heartedness is the lot of everyone. And it has learned that the “we” who are deserving of love, of gentleness, and of tender-hearted care, includes ourselves—it includes me, too. Such rediscovered love is not unconditional, per se, but the old conditions do not apply to it. It’s as though the love of our youth was bound by the laws of Newtonian mechanics; when a particle (in this case, our love) encounters a barrier (what abuses our love or makes us less loving), it must either cease moving in that direction or be redirected around the barrier (our endless sense-making efforts). In juxtaposition to this, the newly (re)discovered love I’m speaking of here belongs to the realm of quantum physics. Quantum physics shows us how particles can also be waves and how some wavefunctions can move through barriers without even leaving a trace of their passage—an act known as “quantum tunneling.” The quantum world—which really is the whole world—is entirely different than the Newtonian world. Old standards no longer apply. And so it is with young love and old love. I don’t know how else to describe it.
At the end of the day, then, this is life: we come into the world scarred and full of wonder. Then we gain more scars. If we are fortunate, we also gain more wonder. We say “wow” and “ow” and “thank you.” In the end, again if we are lucky, we leave the world as we came into it—scarred and full of wonder, Curious and predisposed to awe and laughter and love.