The following essay was originally published in Fiddler’s Green Peculiar Parish Magazine n.4
I’ve always found it easy to enter a state of wonderment. I bring it on by any of various means: meditation, prayer, movement, art, nature, aether, interpersonal connection, or just staring into space. Sometimes these experiences are accompanied by visions or other phenomena not usually native to waking life. As a devotee of Odin (among others), I ask Him questions in prayer—and He answers. It’s a pretty limited form of divination, as I typically get a grunt, a faint headshake, or an eye-roll with his one remaining eye. (This last one I interpret as Odin saying, “Hmph, you know my answer already.”) And of course if I stop to think about it, I know He’s right. (“So why are you bothering me with these questions?”)
I find the conversation reassuring, but on the other hand I’ve also always seen the essential value of iconoclasm, as well as scientific inquiry. This being the case, I’ve found it easy to critique even things I love without diminishing that love, or to analyze precious, fragile situations without disrupting them. Could it be that my interactions with Odin are only a figment of my imagination? Of course; but when I talk that way, He goes away, and who could blame Him? So I don’t.
For whatever reason, the shape of my psyche is such that these apparent contradictions don’t come into conflict. I can hold both facets of reality at once and not lose the feeling of wonder. I’m not entirely immune to buzzkill, but I’m close. I’ve often wished I could bestow this ability on others: we tend to be kinda wary of having our bubbles burst; if something provides a sense of wonder, we may guard it fiercely. (I believe I’ve observed some contention between theists and atheists, for example.) For me, though, the “belief” that such-and-such source of wonderment is or is not “true” has no effect on my ability to access wonder through it.
Recent neurological research has observed brain activity correlating to things like authoritarianism, empathy, squeamishness, and tolerance for ambiguity. Perhaps I just have a high capacity for “spirituality” or “trance”—crafted into my neurons by a combination of genetic and developmental factors—which is able to operate just fine without any supporting dogma. Now, I can see how someone might feel this sort of reductionist-materialist explanation a threat to their preferred source of wonderment. Does this mean that Odin, Faerie, visions of Mary, Samadhi, romantic love, and wonder itself are nothing but hallucinations caused by neurons firing in weird patterns? Maybe, maybe not. Who cares? Why must that change my experience of the state of wonderment?
If we’re being rigorous, we have to admit that all our experience is largely confabulation. We know this. Whether our interpretation lines up with reality or not, it’s still something we make up—even something as straightforward as the color of the sky. Blue is not in the sky, and blue is not in our eye; blue is something our brain makes up, drawing inspiration from the stuff that’s filtered into it. So why should our certainty about the explanation of something transcendent play such a key role in our ability to experience transcendence?
Well, I reckon it just does, sometimes. Clearly “belief” can have a bootstrap effect for the induction of certain states, as well as a supporting effect for maintaining or resuming them. So, going without belief is easier said than done, perhaps. Maybe I just have a knack, a rare comfort with the unknown, which neurologists could pinpoint in an fMRI of the “tolerance for ambiguity” part of my brain. I can commune with Odin just fine whether or not I “believe” that He is an independent consciousness out there somewhere.
Might the ability to live with contradiction be something that can be learned? Brain structures aren’t carved in stone, after all; they’re made of ever-fluctuating combinations of zillions of neurons. My experience is that it can be learned, at least to some extent, by some people. I do have limits, and I’ve bumped into them over the years, the result of various disappointments and disenchantments. You know, life. But by striving to hold onto, cultivate, and exercise my capacity for encountering wonder, and by practicing skepticism even when it’s uncomfortable, I have stretched those limits, even in the face of what might be classified as “anti-wonder.” We can distinguish between the True and the Real, as in the epigraph of Delany’s wonder-filled novel Dhalgren. Whether there is a one-eyed Old Man who is Out There somewhere, who has some sort of scientifically observable existence, acting with intent to impinge on my consciousness from without, or whether I’m “just” imagining it — whether or not anyone’s ideas about Odin are “True” — the inspiration I receive is Real. My thirst for knowledge and capacity for leadership are actually fueled, in real life, by my “contact with” Odin, be He placebo or Allfather.
This type of foundation in the Real frees me up to look critically at my ideas, assumptions, and interpretations. It’s crucial to ask ourselves hard questions, and our aim is far more precise if we can do it without flinching. Stretching this capacity is well worth doing.