The Virtue of Bewilderment

The improvement of life depends on keeping full its supply of surprises. Half the fun of waking up in the morning is the feeling that you have come upon a day that is brand new, a day that the world has never seen before; a day that is certain to do things that no other day has ever done. Half the pleasure of welcoming a newborn baby is the absolute certainty that here you have a packet of amazing surprises It will be a sad day for us all when the world has run out of fireworks to shoot into the sky: no more shocks to be sustained, no more sensations to be experienced, and no more thrills to be enjoyed. Fancy being condemned to live in a world that has nothing up its sleeve to surprise you. It would be a numbing state of existence, void of variety, void of individuality, and void of astonishments.

You hold in your arms a newborn child. Here is a thing that never was before and has no certainty to it. You do not know what this child will grow to be. You do not know what foods the child will prefer or what he/she will look like as an adult. You cannot promise to the child that life will be easy. You may want to, but you cannot. The only thing you can predict with confidence is that this child will do and say things that have never been before or at least have not in that particular way. You are determined to provide this child with everything he/she needs to be and do whatever it wants. Unfortunately, you will fail at this.

You will fail because at some point, that baby will want to do something that society insists can only be done by a certain stereotype or demographic of the population. How will this little package of possibilities respond to obstacles like these?

I am told that a soldier’s first time under fire in a battle is terrifying as one would expect, but as the new-comer settles down, the loud blasts of possible death seem mundane and the soldier ignores it as though it is just the way things are. This is how it is with us as we grow and become accustomed to unfair standards, we lose the childlike sense of amazement and shock. Human tendency is to lose the power of astonishment.

A study was done by Martin Seligman and his colleagues in 1965 to study classic conditioning and involved two sets of dogs. They put each set of dogs in an enclosed box that administered a slight but painful electric shock. One set of dogs was given a lever. When the dog placed its paw on the lever, the shock would stop. The other set however, had no such lever. The dogs that had no lever had to endure the shock as there was nothing it could do about it. The former group learned very quickly to place their paws on the lever whenever the shock was given. Then they took both groups of dogs and put them in boxes that could be easily jumped out of. But this time, none of them were given a lever. When the shock was applied, all the dogs that had previously been given control over it, immediately jumped out of the box. But the others just lay down and whined.  Their minds had been conditioned to believe that they had to passively accept the conditions imposed on them. They had lost the sense of horror regarding what they experienced and therefore, it did not occur to them that they could do anything about it.

Children have a strong sense of justice (ever tried taking a candy bar away from a two year old?). They do not naturally assume that things are done in any particular fashion. However, children are also very impressionable, and when they become accustomed to having that candy bar taken away, they start to feel that this is just how things work. Some will try to tell you that it is ignorance that leads a child to be so easily electrified. It is in fact, just the opposite.

Ignorance does not create wonder. It destroys it. If I walk along a nature trail with a well experienced botanist, I will see him constantly stooping to examine a leaf or a stem that caught his eye. These things seem altogether uneventful to me because I do not hold the knowledge about plants that a botanist does. His knowledge drives him to obsessive awe about what he sees while the only thing I wondered at is the evident enthusiasm of my companion. Like so, if I am taught as a child that I cannot be a construction worker because I am a girl, then my belief that I cannot be a construction worker is rooted in the ignorance of blindly believing what I was told about myself. However, if I grow into adulthood and choose to be a construction worker anyway, then my choice is based in having delved deeper into what I know about myself, that I have what skills needed to do construction work.

I am not so much concerned with the ability of the world to afford us a continuous series of thrills as with one’s own capacity to be surprised. Bewilderment allows an individual to refuse to accept concepts that only a certain gender may do a certain thing or that certain ethnicities act certain ways. Bewilderment breaks the cycle of learned helplessness that teaches us that injustice just ‘is’ and that must be accepted as a simple unfortunate fact. One must never lose the capacity for bewilderment.

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