Wonder and Learning

By Chris Chittenden

I Wonder ....
"People travel to wonder…
at the height of the mountains,
at the huge waves of the sea,
at the long courses of rivers,
at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars,
and they pass themselves by
without wondering."

... St. Augustine, 354-430 A.D.

In Cape Town in South Africa in 1966, Robert Kennedy made a speech that included the words - "There is a Chinese curse which says, "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not, we live in interesting times...". It appears Senator Kennedy may have been off the mark in the origins of the curse - it does not seem to have been documented in Chinese history - but he was on the money in regard to his assessment of the times. Things have not changed much in the thirty five or so years since that comment was made.

Why should living in "interesting times" be a curse? It would seem that the curse may be related to another Chinese saying "It's better to be a dog in a peaceful time that be a man in a chaotic period." It appears "interesting times" may well be about chaos. In other words, periods of great and rapid change. This is indeed descriptive of our modern world.

In chaos, we see a complete lack of control. However this should never the case. We always have control over how we observe a situation and what choices we make in response to it. Human being's most effective means of dealing with change is learning new ways of acting, however if we feel we have no or little control in a situation, our ability to learn is severely affected.

In situations of change, we can find ourselves in one of three basic emotional spaces. What we term confusion, perplexity and wonder. Each of these emotional spaces is based on a basic assessment we make of our situation. If we hold the view that "I don't know what is happening here and I DO NOT like it", then we find ourselves in confusion. We do not know which way to turn but know that wherever we turn will be unpleasant. Confusion is nearly always a path to anxiety and fear.

An assessment that "I don't know what is going on and I am not sure whether I like it or not" leaves us in a space of perplexity. We still feel threatened but have a sense that we could find some positive way forward.

Both confusion and perplexity are uncomfortable emotional spaces and when we find ourselves in them, we seek to get back to some certainty to feel more comfortable. In times of rapid change and ongoing uncertainty this is a forlorn ambition. Rather such a course of action will only find us seeing our situation as even more chaotic and out of control, leading to heightened levels of anxiety and stress.

So what of "wonder"? It is an emotional spaces based on the assessment "I don't know what is going on but I am OK with it". From a space of wonder, we are able to live in a world of change and be energised and excited about what might come our way. It is a space that is accompanied by "peaceful curiosity" and as a result is most conducive for learning, the key to dealing with change.

A space of wonder involves two key underlying assessments. "I accept that change is a fundamental and inescapable part of life" and "I assess that I am capable of dealing with change". The first assessment is often easier to make because we see it as out in the world. Look hard enough and change is everywhere. The second is usually the more difficult to hold. It goes to the core of who we are and how we see ourselves. It goes to our way of being.

Coaching is about supporting people in generating a way of being such that they see themselves as learners. It is one proven and successful way in which people living in the modern world can find a space of wonder and expand their capability to deal with change.

More articles on Being Human

© 2002 Chris Chittenden