Be Not Afraid beauty

The Healing Power of Wonder: Why Being Defensive Will Never Make You Happy

6:00:00 AMStephanie Culy

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My fiancé and I were walking out of the theater one afternoon after watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster. When he asked me what I thought of the movie, I grunted. In the conversation that followed, he questioned why, out of all the movies we had seen together, I had only ever liked one.
Ouch. That was quite a revelation; one that ultimately helped me to realize that I had lost the sense of wonder I once had in childhood. The trials and disappointments of life had closed me off to the very things that used to captivate me, like an imaginative story, a flower growing out of the sidewalk, or an unexpected change of plans. I was no longer comfortable with these experiences of being called outside of the day’s necessities (academic studies, laundry, balancing the checkbook) and into the deeper realm of my heart’s desires. My wounds now caused me to see these not as adventures to encounter and explore, but as threats to expose the core of my being. And exposure hurts.
As Dietrich von Hildebrand explains, I had every right to stay in this defensive mindset. With the gift of free will, we are given the freedom to either accept or reject such invitations to recognize the transcendent desires of our souls. As The Dietrich von Hildebrand LifeGuide states, “We can abandon ourselves to this experience, we can open our soul in its very depth, we can expose our soul to the action of the value; or we can close ourselves, we can abstain from accepting it freely, from letting ourselves be pervaded by it: we can counteract it.” (21)
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This is the situation I found myself in, and I knew that staying in this closed defensiveness was never going to lead me to happiness. I had the diagnosis, but I still needed to find the solution. I resolved to set out on a rediscovery of what it is to be “pervaded by” an experience. So I turned to the things that once encouraged my imagination and lifted my soul. And I started with fiction.
By providence, I picked up The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I say this was providential because I found my current disposition reflected similarly in the experience of the main character, Mary Lennox. When the reader is introduced to her, Mary is a spoiled little girl growing up alone. That is, without any other children, in an upper-class society with inattentive and unaffectionate parents, and with the household servants at her beck and call. In effect, she is cold, stubborn, and judgmental. When Mary is orphaned, she is sent to the mansion of a rich uncle in England. With most of the rooms in the house off-limits, Mary’s boredom eventually persuades her to journey outside. And what a change this brought!

“Four good things had happened to her, in fact, since she came to Misselthwaite Manor. She had felt as if she had understood a robin and that he had understood her; she had run in the wind until her blood had grown warm; she had been healthily hungry for the first time in her life; and she had found out what it was to be sorry for someone. She was getting on.” (50)

If Mary Lennox could be awoken from her harshness to a softer disposition, I thought, perhaps there was still hope for myself. But what was it exactly, I wondered, that stirred such a profound impact in her life? As paradoxical and scary as it sounded to me, I couldn’t help but admit that Mary’s healing was brought about by her receptivity to the awakening of her sense of wonder. Although cold from her upbringing (as I had become through the disappointments in life), her childhood innocence disposed Mary to being receptive to this power of beauty, this captivating sense of wonder that she experienced in the gardens and surrounding moor. She began to unlock her heart to the people and the world around her, and it instantly began to have a transformative effect on her.
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This resonated with me, and I sought to dive deeper into understanding this transformative power of beauty and wonder. I soon discovered that this experience spoke not only to my heart, but to the broader human condition. Hildebrand states it nicely, as quoted in The Dietrich von Hildebrand LifeGuide:

“It is indeed a deep characteristic of man to desire to be confronted with something beyond self-centeredness, which obligates us and affords us the possibility of transcending the limits of our subjective inclinations, tendencies, urges, and drives rooted exclusively in our nature.” (12)

But to go outside of ourselves is a dangerous thing. It is only within this very act of willfully exposing ourselves to another that both possibilities of extreme joy and extreme sorrow coexist. Mary Lennox experienced this anxiety when weighing the consequences of sharing her secret garden with a young boy she encounters. He could join her and enter into a more profound level of joy, or he could betray her trust, disclose her secret, and cause her expulsion from the garden. Chances are, we’ve all experienced both sides of the coin. So how do we recover from such a wound when it pierces?
Be not afraid.

Just as a garden’s transformative beauty cannot be experienced if it is locked and hidden, so too fear can make us prisoners to an existence that is less than what our human dignity affords us. As St. John Paul II once said in his encyclical On Faith and Reason, “Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little would become incapable of a life which is genuinely personal.” (4) The disposition of an open heart — to wonder, to explore, to dream, to give — these are all part of our calling as persons created in the image and likeness of God. It (an open heart) possesses a great power to wound, but more importantly, to heal.

In choosing to share her experience of the garden, Mary Lennox brings renewed hope to a sickly little boy. In sharing ourselves, we call others to the same prospect of discovery: both a discovery of self and the other person. If we live our lives according to this model, not in fear and closing in on ourselves, but instead open to the spirit of wonder and receptivity, we will approach the world with joyful spirits, unlocking the garden of human souls.

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