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We Miss It, but What Is It?
It happened again the other day as we were in one of the teeming cities of our land. My wife and I were walking hurriedly to keep an appointment. We were elbowing our way through the mass of people, bobbing and weaving, a step here and a turn there, making the best speed we could. When waves of humanity descend from every direction, it is inevitable for one to feel like a minute drop in a mighty torrent—unobserved, unimportant, almost nonexistent. It is the way with crowds. Such settings at once multiply and diminish the individual.
Yet one man stood out, and we could not help but find our gaze, almost with guilt, riveted upon his stooping figure. Our pace and, yes, our heartbeat, irresistibly slowed. We were both silent as we watched him—unkempt, unwashed, unshaven, and, I suppose, uncaring—as he burrowed through the garbage can on the sidewalk, tearing open any paper bag that might contain remnants of food. This is sobering to see anywhere, yet even more so in a land whose name is synonymous with abundance. But there he was, foraging almost like an animal for any edible morsel and stuffing it into his mouth.
Whenever we see a person whose whole being reveals the marks of such impoverishment my wife remarks, "To think that he was once a baby, held in the arms of his mother while she dreamed great dreams for him." I suppose that only from a mother would these sentiments flow at such a sight. Her words conjure up the image of a mother lovingly cradling her tiny infant and stroking his face while she sings to him about his future. Being human we assume that hopes and dreams are made for us and that we are made for them. In some cultures parents consult astrologers and determine the baby's name according to planetary alignments, and they celebrate with endless ceremonies to ensure a wonderful future. A baby throbbing with life is embodied promise. The birth day gives birth to more than a life—it gives birth to new hopes.
Some analysts of human psychology even go so far as to say that it is this distinctive of the human mind, its grand potential for dreaming and pursuing those dreams, that sets us apart from all other entities. We look into the future not just whimsically but with purpose and design. Our imaginations encourage us to aspire, hope, express ourselves, long for the fulfillment of dreams, wish, and plan. First, others dream for us; then the dream is our own. First, we see circumstances, then opportunities. And so, when we are confronted by a sight such as this pathetic, elderly man searching for sustenance in a garbage heap, we conclude that his life has fallen short of the future he could have had.
Skeptics would use a tragedy like this to point to the absence of God in the human experience. "Where is God in such disfigurement?" they will argue. "How can one blame this man for seeing no purpose and fulfillment in being alive?"
I think it is here that we make our first very subtle mistake, both in our logic and in our experience. It is shallow reasoning to deduce that because pain or unfulfilled dreams have brought disappointment to experience, life itself must be hollow and purposeless. In fact, this conclusion may miss the deeper problem within our common struggle to find something in life of ultimate purpose. Let me change the illustration to make the point.
Attaining the Dream
An acquaintance of mine was visiting France's famous art gallery, the Louvre. As he was walking silently from room to room, he saw a group of blind students being led by their teacher. Blind students in an art gallery cannot but draw one's curiosity. But the instructor became their eyes, going to great lengths to describe each painting. Then he led them to a room where the statue of an ancient Greek Olympic athlete stood on a pedestal. The teacher took each student's hand, one by one, and guided it so that the student could feel the musclebound figure and the "perfect physique" of this specimen. The young boys were awe-stricken just to touch the powerful body, contoured down to its very veins in stone, all asking if they could feel his muscles once more. Then some of these spindly legged youngsters started to feel each other's thin arms and giggled and chuckled at the difference. Their faces said it all: What must it be like to have that physique? That's life the way it was meant to be. You have that and you have everything.
It is here that we grasp the underlying struggle common to both, though in appearance and accomplishment the impoverished old man and the idolized young athlete are worlds apart. No one, for example, would look at the muscular giant and say, "How can there be a God when a man like this looks so good?" No, success and prowess do not logically provoke skepticism about God's existence. But they may lead to an easy delusion—that this well-built champion is a thoroughly fulfilled individual and that life is wonderful for a person so obviously blessed with an enviable physique. Wretchedness and failure understandably breed cynicism. Power and beauty, we assume, bring contentment. One has lost all hope for what he would make of his life; the other has attained the ideal. But the question emerges, Has he really? On the surface it would appear to be true. Yet I have my doubts.
You see, fulfilled dreams are not necessarily fulfilled hopes. Attainment and fulfillment are not the same. Many dream and wish for the attainments that would make them the envy of our world. Careers, positions, possessions, romance ... these are real goals, pursued by the vast majority who are deluded into believing that succeeding in these areas brings fulfillment. But deep within there is some stronger longing, sometimes even hard to pinpoint. We know there is a vacuum, a space of huge proportions that seeks a state of mind that attainments cannot fill. That dream of ultimate fulfillment is intangible but recognizable, indefinable but felt, verbalized but imprecise, visualized but blurred, inestimable but traded in for something less, something daily. I suggest it is the greatest pursuit of every life, consciously or unconsciously, and it is not mitigated by one's worldly success. That pursuit is the grand theme of this book.
We pity the man at the garbage dump because his impoverishment is stark and his disfigurement is visible. But then we sit in front of our television screens or in movie theaters, or thumb through our fashion magazines eyeing symbols of beauty and success—the icons of our time—and we do not see the scavenging that goes on within them, the searching through every success to find something of transcending worth, the plastic smiles, the contoured shapes, the schizoid hungers for privacy and recognition at the same time. Dreams attained? I think not. They are still looking for "somewhere, over the rainbow."
I believe it is possible that those who have attained every dream may be at least as impoverished as the man at the dump—perhaps even more—as they bask in the accolades, knowing that the charade is shattered by the aloneness within them. We soon realize that the contrast between the two may only be in the access to "things" and in the adulation received, and that it is not necessarily true that in one the greatest hunger—not only to dream, but for the dream to deliver what was hoped for—has been fulfilled. That is the ultimate hope.
What is it that we want the dream to deliver? I would like to call it wonder, when life and daily living are possessed and driven by that sense which keeps the emotions in the balance of enchantment with reality. Can life be in tune with reality and also be enchanting without being escapist? It is this very hope that often lies in ruins even though we have attained our personal goals, professionally or economically. All too soon, for so many of us, wonder is swallowed up by wonder-killing reason or experience.
The Philosopher's Quest
It was Plato who said that all philosophy begins with wonder. Wonder, to Plato, was that impulse that probed, investigated, and sought out explanations. Give a toy to a little boy and in moments it is broken because he has opened it up to see what makes it whir or tick or chime or speak. It is our hidden Narnia into which we long to step and explore. It is the rotating musical merry-go-round that entrances the child. It is the sight of a jet plane or a rocket surging into the skies and the marvel, if only for a moment, at such design and power and beauty. The touch of a hand that makes you wish that time would stand still, the musical score that grips the soul—what makes these things affect us as they do? And perhaps more to the point, why are we fascinated by such things?
Ah! But here comes the rub. This is where we abruptly hit the ground as we touch down upon the mundane. Francis Bacon ruefully observed that though it may be true that all philosophy begins with wonder, it is also true that wonder dies with knowledge. Explanation is the termination point of mystery, analysis the death knell of curiosity. The parts are greater than the whole when you are in pursuit, but they become lesser than the whole when it is no longer a mystery and the toy no longer enchants. In other words, knowing overrides dreaming. Reality undercuts fantasy. Longing often dies at the moment of realization. Is it because description, by nature, defies mystery? Or is it because the reality defies the way we want it to be?
Most of us can go back to a time in our lives when dreams of a life filled with wonder throbbed within our souls. In fact, that very stage of dreaming finds its own fulfillment in a marvelous disposition we call hope. But time has led us also to believe that Bacon does have a point. Is it not because of the delight of anticipation that all children love Christmas Eve even more than they love Christmas Day? Is it not because the fulfillment of his longings is just moments away that a youngster, though thoroughly fatigued, will deny sleep and fight to keep his eyes open? But then comes the day after Christmas and reality strikes. The longing is now gone and everything that spelled wonder is being packed up in a box. Does unwrapping the gift take away from the gift? Why is the exhausting pursuit of the human heart for contentment so convoluted? Why does the enchantment that we long for seem so elusive and almost scandalously complex?
Someone once humorously quipped that life consists of four stages. In the first stage we believe in Santa Claus. At the second stage we no longer believe in Santa Claus. The third stage is when we find out that we are Santa Claus. The fourth and final stage has arrived when we look like Santa Claus.
We know that hopes come and go and that life returns to the common and the repetitive. If that fluctuation and disappointment were only momentary, we could endure it. But life is not what we thought it would be. The problem with life, then, is not that a man ends up burrowing through garbage looking for something to fill his stomach but that no matter what we have achieved or attained in our life, we still find ourselves burrowing deep within, trying to assuage the hungers of our soul. G. K. Chesterton summed this up when he said that weariness does not come from being weary of pain but from being weary of pleasure.
Realizing the First Disappointments
Something troubling emerges from this realization that greater learning diminishes wonder, that the greater the knowledge the more certain the absence of any transcending wonder. Is the conclusion that life is not enchanting the reason that aesthetic arguments for God's existence are not taken seriously by atheistic philosophers? Denying the objective existence of beauty and design takes away the necessity of explaining the source of my attraction to beauty and the search for a designer, does it not? Why, then, do I feel dissatisfied or cheated and what is it that I am pursuing?
Philosophers who deny this objective reality trivialize the internal longing. That is why we instinctively dismiss their castigations and bend our ears to artists, thinking they can help us restore the romance of life. Are they not the ones who perpetually dream? But here, too, disappointment looms, as often these poets and dreamers are more prone to run into pessimism than delight. Everything romanticized seems anticlimactic as one faces the advancing years.
I think of the popular song sung decades ago where a mother's response to her child's question about her future is "Que sera, sera ... whatever will be, will be." Each time the questions of life are asked, of teachers, friends, and others, the same response is given: "Que sera, sera." Fatalism is on every side, from every source. Finally, the questioner finds herself being asked the same questions and the predictable answer comes: "Whatever will be, will be."
As I am writing this I am aboard a plane heading overseas. The flight attendant, quite intrigued by the fact that I have skipped a meal in order to continue writing, leaned over and asked, "What are you writing about with such intensity?" As we talked, I noticed an engagement ring on her finger and asked if she were indeed engaged. She proceeded to tell me that although she was engaged, she was having second thoughts about it because an astrologer had told her that this was not an auspicious time as he could not see their names aligned in the present astrological chart.
"What do you think?" she asked.
It was hard to keep from shaking my head in disbelief. Where does one begin to talk to someone who is afraid of destiny yet believes in the world of destiny without knowing anything about who controls that destiny? To add to the senselessness of her predicament, she herself did not eat because this was the holy month of fasting. "Que sera, sera" would fit well into her thinking. A million questions surface when one faces the unknown with the grim belief in a predestined life that is at the mercy of who knows what, and that only a sharp, implacable force is in control of one's destiny.
In short, philosophers question the dream that life must experience enchantment while romantics dream away the question. Both disassemble the toy only to discover that the search is greater than the discovery and that they are destined to be resigned to the belief that enchantment is merely a subject to discuss, never a state to be attained. Thus, the arts play with our emotions and philosophy toys with our reason, while every fiber within our being cries out that this is not the way it was intended and that we may have robbed ourselves of the greatest of all treasures. Fatalism is the creed of a will that is dying to its possibilities and seeks to drag the imagination with it. Resignation to life as a "so it is" carved in stone is the cynical response of the one who does not know the grand triumph of the imagination that God has fashioned for us. Just like the bumblebee that flies though it is not aerodynamically fit, so it is that every person who remembers what it is like to be a child gives reason and emotion its due and still seeks for wonder. The flashes in time where we catch a glimpse of wonder spur us on to attaining it.
We have all known that sensation and, like a chord of music that touches the soul, we are possessed by that memory of fullness that transcends words and then with equal mystery is gone. The songwriter captured it well:
Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.
I know not what I was playing
Or what I was dreaming then,
But I struck one chord of music
Like the sound of a great "Amen."
It flooded the crimson twilight
Like the close of an angel's psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
Like the touch of infinite calm.
It quieted pain and sorrow
Like love overcoming strife,
It seemed the harmonious echo
Of our discordant life.
It linked all perplexed meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And it trembled away into silence
As if it were loathe to cease.
I have sought but I seek it vainly—
That one lost chord divine—
That came from the soul of the organ
And entered into mine.
It may be that death's bright angel
Will speak in that chord again,
It may be that only in heaven
I shall hear that grand "Amen."
Wonder was in that lost chord. There was a "soulishness" to it. It came and then vanished, leaving a hunger behind. How does one describe such an experience? How does one hold on to it?
I strongly suspect that the reason you are reading this book is that you yourself are hoping to find something new and asking whether anyone can deliver on this question. I sincerely believe God has answered, and He has done so in various ways. I have no doubt whatsoever that finding an answer to this question is worth giving everything a person owns. In this answer lies the wealth of our purpose and destiny.
In fact Jesus talks of such a person. He speaks of a merchant looking for a precious pearl who, when he found the pearl of great price, sold all he had previously considered worthwhile in order to buy it. That pearl of great price, pragmatically speaking, is that search for the heart to find its complete fulfillment.
Excerpted from Recapture the Wonder by Ravi Zacharias. Copyright © 2003 Ravi Zacharias. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Posted May 22, 2004
Ravi Zacharias at his best! I have been listening to and reading Ravi's messages for close to three decades. Recapture the Wonder is a culmination of Zacharias' central themes, his heart, and the thrust of his life-long ministry of preaching. This book will edify the believer and point the unbeliever toward God. Moving the reader back into the marvel of God is an demanding task. Usually Ravi is hard-hitting on a philosophical and intellectual level--similar to his preaching style. Here, however, in Recapture the Wonder he presents his life's work in a readable, straight forward fashion making the material more accessible to the general Christian reader and their non-Christian friends. This book offers guidance back into the ultimate resource to meet the human need--to worship God and enjoy Him forever.
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