Wonder and Chaos: Adventures in Childhood
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Wonder is one of those magic childhood words. Childhood is a time of discovery and exploration. So much is new or seen anew with fresh eyes. And so when we think about ‘wonder’ and what that word means – it is easy to link wonder with childhood. It’s about discovery and curiosity, perhaps even amazement. Many of us can think back to time of wonder we experienced in our childhood.
I was talking with our youngest, our ten-year-old, this week about my sermon. He was asking in general about how I write sermons, when I do it and how many do I write at a time. He was curious. I made a point to telling him that this week’s topic would be about childhood, but we didn’t go into detail about that, he was more interested in my writing process at the moment.
Later that night during bedtime, when all manner of possible conversations can occur, I mentioned my sermon topic again: Wonder and Chaos, Adventures in Childhood. I asked him if he knew what those words meant and we talked about that a bit. Then I asked if he thought his childhood had both wonder and chaos in it. He said, “Yeah, I wonder about stuff. I don’t have that ‘wonder’ like really exciting ‘wonder’ but I wonder about stuff. And chaos, of course, lots of that.”
The way he said it was almost like chaos is a given – of course, lots of that. He wasn’t so sure about ‘wonder’, but ‘chaos’, yeah! Lots of that. He went on to express what seemed to him an obvious fact: that children experience more chaos than adults do.
That made me … wonder … about my assumptions. Despite what I know about life, despite what I have experienced in my own childhood – I still romanticize childhood. I remember hours spent watching water move or clouds float by. I spent whole days holed up in my room creating worlds with my legos and imagination. I used to tromp around and explore the woods near my neighborhood. I remember watching the Aurora Borealis roll and unfurl across the cold night sky. Yeah, it’s not hard to think of my childhood as a time of wonder. And my son’s perspective surprised me. Does he not get out enough? Are there fewer opportunities for wonder in his life, in children’s lives today? Or, am I – are many of us – looking back at childhood with rose-colored glasses, romanticizing it into being more full of wonder than it really was?
Yes, childhood is a time of discovery and exploration and wonder. But ‘chaos’ is a word that can be used to describe very similar experiences. Think about this. Wonder is that sense of discovery, that sense of seeing things anew. Chaos is also about that situations in life that are suddenly there, new – especially that which is not-yet-understood. If it is hard to predict and it all seems random: that’s chaos. Chaos is certainly a word I would use to describe significant parts of my childhood. I used to hide in my room with my legos or flee the house for hours wandering in the nearby woods rather than spend time with my older alcoholic and drug-using siblings. It was hard to predict how they would behave; I didn’t understand what was really going on. It was chaotic. School wasn’t much better, I didn’t fit in. Everything felt like a strain and a trial. I sometimes wonder how I got through it.
So, when I am honest with myself I recognize how my childhood was filled with experiences of wonder and experiences of chaos. I lean into the experiences of wonder when I look back today. I have thankfully filled the story of ‘who I am’ with the experiences of wonder that I recall. Chaos is about confusion and disorder, turmoil and upheaval. Wonder is akin to innocence and joy; it is to marvel at something, to be in awe. In short: Wonder is something we want more of, it is a good experience; Chaos is something we want less of, it is not an experience we seek out.
So consider this with me. Consider your own childhood. Did you have times of wonder and times of chaos in your childhood? Was your childhood mostly filled with wonder and maybe some chaos as my romanticized version led me to think? Or was your childhood chock full of chaos along with some times of wonder as Piran’s version of events would have it? Or was it more or less a mix? And more importantly: How did you get through the chaos? How do you hold on to the wonder? How about in your life today? Do you experience wonder? How do you get through today’s chaos?
The wonder and chaos of childhood is ever present to us as adults. The question worth pursuing is the one about how we get through the chaos of life. Our experiences of it as children can lead us to deeper understanding and richer living today. Jesus said that to enter the Kingdom of God we would need to become as children. (Mark 10: 13-16) I suspect this has to do with wonder. I suspect this is trying to say, ‘relax and be as open to life as a child can be.’ Be aware of wonder for it can lead you to peace in the midst of chaos.
Interestingly, I’ve discovered this to be a rather singular religious passage, the one about receiving the kingdom of God through your child-likeness. Many religious texts – the Bible, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, the Analects – say things about children. They outline ethical statements about children. They say children should honor their parents. They say children should be trained and given instruction while they are young to help them grow up to be good people.
“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,” the book of proverbs tells us from the Hebrew Scriptures. (Proverbs 22:6 – Christianity and Judaism) “As the child, according to its natural disposition, commits thousands of faults, the father instructs and slights, but again hugs him to his bosom,” is how it is stated in a text from the Sikh tradition. (Adi Granth, Sorath, M:5 – Sikhism) “The Lord has decreed … that you be kind to parents,” is how the Qur’an puts it. (Qur’an 17:23 – Islam) Again and again religious texts offer the message: train the children right and insure that they honor their parents. As if “obedience” is the best skill we can offer our children.
And it occurred to me that these are attempts to ameliorate chaos in life. They are offerings of rules and order, which are the backbone of overcoming chaos and turmoil to be sure! And my son had said something of that sort to me earlier this week, that parents behave in certain ways to protect children. Yet in the midst of all these statements about children from the sacred texts of the world, one stands out to say something different. Christianity says just as much about rules and childhood behaviors as any other religious tradition, but in this little passage from the gospel of Mark it also offers child-likeness as something of a spiritual quality. Child-likeness is offered up not as being in need of correction or guidance. It is offered as a guide back toward something we once know and have perhaps forgotten.
“Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15) Some of the best things we can receive, it says, are only available if we can be as children. Surely this has something to do with qualities such as openness, curiosity, willingness to be amazed. Surely this is about wonder.
Now, we don’t count the words of our famous Unitarian and Universalist founders as scripture. So when I say this passage in the Gospel of mark is singular in its message among religious scripture, I am not counting the words of Unitarian Universalists. Sophia Fahs says something other than ‘honor and obey your parents’ when she proclaims that “every night a child is born is a holy night.” And William Ellery Channing says this:
The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own; … Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment. In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.
Channing appeals to that sense of discovery, that openness and curiosity that we had as children. Wonder. “Yeah, I wonder about stuff,” Piran said to me earlier this week. “I don’t have that ‘wonder’ like really exciting ‘wonder’ but I wonder about stuff. And chaos, of course, lots of that.”
What do we, as a people of faith, say about children and chaos? We don’t have those rules about not sparing the rod and filial piety. What do we offer to ameliorate chaos? I think that instead of offering rules to stave off chaos, we acknowledge it as a part of living. In so doing, we say the way to survive the chaos of childhood and adulthood is by staying open to grace and wonder.
The UUA recently published (through Skinner House Books) an anthology on parenting titled Chaos, Wonder, and the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting. It is loosely the source of my own title and topic for this sermon. The essays discuss a range of parenting topics rather than topics of childhood – but of course they are similar, the difference being a matter of from which end are looking at it. Award-winning author Barbara Kingsolver is one to the contributors with her essay entitled “Civil Disobedience at Breakfast.” Kingsolver describes the root problem she experiences with her two year old as a difference in personality.
Like any working stiff of a mother keeping the family presentable and solvent, I lived in a flat-out rush. My daughter lived on Zen time. These doctrines cannot find peace under one roof. I tried everything I could think of to bring her onto my schedule: five-minute countdowns, patient explanations of our itinerary, frantic appeals, authoritarianism, the threat of taking her to preschool exactly however she was dressed when the clock hit sever. (She went in PJs, oh delight! Smug as Brer Rabbit in the briars.) The more I tried to hurry us along, the more meticulously unhurried her movements became. (p95)
And that’s how it was, as I sat at breakfast one morning watching my darling idle dangerously with her breakfast. I took a spectacularly deep breath and said, in a voice I imagined was calm, “We need to be going very soon. Please be careful not to spill your orange juice.”
She looked me in the eye and coolly knocked over her glass.
Bang, my command was dead. Socks, shirt, and overalls would have to be changed, setting back the start of my workday another thirty minutes. Thirty-five, if I wanted to show her who was boss by enforcing a five-minute time-out.
Later in the day I called a friend to tell my breakfast war story. She had a six-year-old, so I expected commiseration. The point of my call, really, was to hear that one could live through this and that it ended. Instead, my friend was quiet. “You know,” she said finally, “Amanda never went through that. I worry about her. She works so hard to please everybody. I’m afraid she’ll never know how to please herself.”
A land mine exploded in the back of my conscience. My child was becoming all I’d ever wanted.
Oh, how slight the difference between “independent” and “ornery.” (p95-97)
Consider how Barbara Kingsolver’s description of her breakfast war story was an experience of chaos at first. Then she became a moment of wonder: “My child was becoming all I’d ever wanted” she suddenly understood.
The difference between chaos and wonder is not simply a shift in perspective; like the difference between a glass half empty and a glass half full. What happened to Kingsolver in her story is has more to do with a layer of wonder being added alongside the chaos. And I think that is one way we survive the chaos: we find parallel experiences of wonder amidst the chaos. I think that is the message our faith offers: Be aware of wonder for it can lead you to peace in the midst of chaos. It cannot lead you from chaos to peace, but to peace in the midst of chaos.
In a world without end
May it be so.