Last week my sister asked me, “What is ‘traffic light’ in Spanish?” I frowned. Five years of Spanish class, and I had forgotten the easy vocabulary. All week I wondered.
All last week, I threw Spanish phrases at my sister. This was partly because I had to make up for embarrassing deficiencies as a Spanish minor who doesn’t know such an easy word as “traffic light” in Spanish, and partly to be helpful. My sister was packing her suitcase for Panama. I had to warm her up for the language immersion. One day, I wanted to make a comment starting with, “I wonder…” but I realized this, too, was a phrase I didn’t know. Wordreference.com told me that as a noun, wonder is asombro. As a verb, it has several meanings with a different verb for each: preguntar (to ponder, to speculate), maravillarse (to marvel). The phrase “I wonder” was also literally translated in examples as “I worry” or “I have my doubts.” Such an expansive word – traversing questions, marvels, and worries, all in six letters.
And frankly, it fascinates me that the emotions of amazement and doubt can both be expressed by wonder. How do such polar opposites end up in the same word?
In my ethics class, we speak the language of argumentation and prove it and evidence and science and studies show and logic. My spectacled professor is not interested in wonder. He is interested in certainty. Facts. Harvard studies, psychologists and biologists, The New York Times, public radio, laboratories, genetics. Conclusions, not questions. If you doubt your beliefs, sit down with books and articles; pour over scientific research to piece together life’s puzzle.
We leave faith at the door in that class, because wonder and miracles and marvel have no authority to recommend them to the rational, reasonable human mind. So I sit on my hands and swallow words like faith and miracles and mystery and beyond comprehension. I drain my camelbak and pick my fingernails. And I listen to the language of science. My faith bangs on the door to be let in, but science coolly and calmly tells it it’s not welcome. This showdown of God and my professor leaves me sweating puddles, wondering is this faith I’ve held for years about to be reasoned away right in front of my eyes?
In other words, can I still wonder?
This morning, I woke up before extreme heat could take over the planet. The sun was hot, the cotton drifted in the languid air, but the temperature had not yet reached today’s high, 96. I chose the shaded path. As I sped-walked, I passed a mallard duck. He just sat in the grass and stared at me. “Good morning, ” I said (dork that I am). He stretched his wings slightly, nonchalant, and replied quack quack, quack.
A little piece of me wondered at that bright green head, that chipper quack, and his friendly, calm hello. He was just a duck… there are hoardes of them in ponds across America… but just a duck?! On my morning stroll I saw few people, but the animals were everywhere. I felt like Alice in Wonderland… bunnies, squirrels, birds… they caught me by surprise by appearing almost miraculous. Intact little beings that looked at me with dark eyes and filled the morning with an animal chorus. How did they do it? Why was I so lucky to inhabit a neighborhood with these unique creatures?
G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, says that “wonder has a positive element of praise.” He describes his wonder, one of the strongest emotions he’s ever had, in his search for truth: “that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure;it was an adventure because it was an opportunity.”
I think it’s okay to wake up in the morning and embrace the multiple meanings of wonder. Coffee, emails, morning walk, wonder – natural and normal. A day sparkles from moments of marvel, at the sunset through the trees and your friend’s perfect corkscrew curls and a baby’s tiny toes.
Doubt and worry always come, inevitably – it wouldn’t be Tuesday if you hadn’t questioned your judgment at least eleven times and wondered how the sick friend fared and worried that your savings account was too sparse. Yet you can work with doubt and worry. You can turn them into trust, peace, faith, hope… with some careful pruning and enough sunshine. In the end, the black cause of despair can blossom into a true cause for wonder.
Wonder begins the journey. It puts you on a path to discovery (think of how close the words wonder and wander are!). And whether you walk that path for years until your shoes wear out, or the path turns a corner and leads you straight to somewhere, you’d never leave home unless something – speculation, awe, questions – prompted you.
I wonder often, as you know. And this morning I finally remembered to check wordreference.com for the Spanish word that got away: semáforo! Traffic light.
There’s one less thing to wonder about…