This is the death of imagination. I am 11. And like most eleven-year-olds on a school-less afternoon in August I have taken with the other kids in the neighborhood on a ruthless hunt of slaying a horde of evil alien ninja masters. These were enemies of our own design, projections of our subconscious fueled by years of watching televised, choreographed combat with all manner of costumed creatures. Against this horde our armaments were feeble – a fallen branch from the ash tree in the neighbor’s yard, stripped of bark and smoothed over with the questionable edge of my Boy Scout pocket knife. On its own, this branch made a fine sparring pole but, in a pinch, it could gain an edge, become a sword or a saber or a lightsaber. It could become the enchanted staff or cursed scepter, casting off lightning energy and enchanting legions of evildoers with spells.
In those days I could always count on Andy and Alex who lived four and seven houses down the street, to flank from the right. Watching my back was my younger brother. Younger, slower, and probably the one who would inevitably let us down as the ninja horde closed in around us. We could abandon him or leave him as bait, but our mom said I had to include him because she didn’t want either of us hanging around the house all day irritating the hell out of her.
And it all comes crashing down in an instant. The horde vanishes. My enchanted staff dwindles to a bit of splintered wood. Andy and Alex are no longer attacking. No, they’re just running around swinging sticks and shrill screaming as they chop at tall grasses and abused shrubs. Above all of us a crew of roofers shingles the family house. They’ve been at it all day, rat-tat-tatting one row of shingles with the next watching a bunch of dumbass eleven-year-olds make asses of themselves against an invisible army. They all speak Spanish, but a mocking laugh is the same in every language.
Most days I balance on a surface high above a pit of depression. Some days this surface is wide as a bike lane and others it resembles dental floss, and it is everything to not slip and fall. My job – my reason for being in this forsaken world – is to put characters into a series of boxes and digital pages that more or less look the same. There are so many fonts, and every letter is shaped and spaced perfectly, and the persistent evenness of Arial only erodes away at the very idea of “creativity.” Place this against the endless hours we all spend scrolling through infinite pages of images and memes and videos and texts, each racking up the kind of attention no human can conceive in any tangible manner, each whittling away at our collective ambition to create something else, something new, something more.
Something our own.
“Every child is an artist,” goes the Picasso quote etched and stitched across a thousand pieces of meta-art, “the problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.” Consider the NASA sanctioned study to measure a person’s creativity. The result: NASA looks for the kind of creativity found in 99% of children but only 2% of adults. Somewhere around the fifth grade, eleven years old, creativity plummets. Blame puberty, hormones, the instinctual and inherent need to feel accepted among peers, to attract a mate, to present something that feels familiar to the culture you know. In no uncertain terms the world wants you to know that no one wants to fuck the ugly duckling.
Then we grow up a bit and discover we’re all someone’s ugly duckling, and there are paid membership sites to watch these ducks do all sorts of things better left unmentioned in the face of mixed company.
Still, even with our perfect duck we are still devoid of our imagination. Our sense of wonder evaporates and at a certain point we suddenly seem to “know” everything. When there is nothing left to learn, why bother? Anything new is just a threat to your understanding of the world. We have learned enough to eat well and sleep soundly and produce the next generation – why compromise such a solid foundation by building your way further up Maslow’s pyramid?
What is it to truly understand something in a world full of information? The human psyche is but a house of cards. At this hour I suppose I am asking: don’t you miss what it is to wonder?
Every day, every hour, in the 14 times we check our phone in that hour, a flood of new information arrives for us to contest. The attention goes wide and moves fast because it has to. What will you do with this headline, with this update? How will you respond? What do you feel? Do you have time to effectively process this emotion? Our understanding is a kneejerk response and opinion informed by the average temperature of the room. To have an opinion is one thing, to have the confidence to defend an unpopular opinion? Get out of here.
Every curiosity is resolved in an instant. Posit your question into the air around you and listen to what the gentle, robotic voice replies. Questions are answered, but problems are not solved. Problems aren’t even discovered. This tends to happen when you forget how to ask a question for which there is no defined answer.
This isn’t about the loss of imagination or artistic expression – both of which are loaded to the hilt with the obligation to create something tangible. The anxiety of creating something is loaded with the weight of imposter syndrome, with the sickness of comparison. And even if you were to engage in a creative practice, it always seems to pale in comparison to the fire that raged when you were a child, when you were still employable by NASA, when you were FIVE.
No, my dear, patient reader, all of this is an inquiry into my misplaced desire to wonder.
“Wonder is the basis of a man’s desire to understand.”
I have always subscribed to the belief that the best questions only lead to more questions than answers. The tricky part is uncovering that first question. In our capitalism-driven, profit-defined, productivity-demanding modern times every question must lead to an answer – the right answer. In all practical cases, your employer will go with the safe answer, even if it isn’t the right one. You may be filed into a conference room one afternoon to brainstorm all manner of “out of the box” ideas – and it will likely be a futile exercise. Asking an average employee for creativity on demand is like trying to start your dead uncle’s car after it sat in the driveway for the past decade. When you’re asked to brainstorm, it is usually to placate an employee’s need to feel involved with the fate of the company.
Today, risks aren’t taken unless the outcome is certain. Today, it is all but taboo to wonder.
Wonder, after all, is usually modified with “childlike.” Leave it to the children, let them come up with answers for the things they have yet to understand! They will be set straight one of these days. Look at the adult who takes the time to wonder – their head in the clouds, under a tree in the park, napping on a weekday afternoon. How lazy! What sort of madman would rather read a book, alone, than share their attention with people? Meditation, I’ll have you know, only takes ten minutes a day! As though there were a quantified study behind seeing where your thoughts wanted to go.
Wonder has no border, no measurement, no useful applications in your day to day dealings, and thus it has no place in our culture. Wonder is done on your own time, in the privacy of your home, where no one has to see that sort of thing.
A few weeks ago, I assembled my manifesto for 2024. Guidelines for the year ahead, thought experiments, and gentle reminders: let strangers be strange and be into what you’re into. Rest. Make art, not content. Through these reminders one theme keeps coming through: Wonder.
Reader, would you wonder with me? Would you wander with me?
Wonder is the basis of a man’s desire to understand, yet so many of ask why we don’t feel understood. Why do we feel invisible or without value?
We want to be understood, and maybe that starts with us first understanding. In our early years we wonder in imagination because there is so much we need to learn. Somehow, the switch flipped off and the wonder ended. There’s nothing left to learn, we think we understand it all.
If you are anything like me, your sense of wonder is all but permanently replaced by a sense of fear. Wonder used to be what drove us to find the connection between cause and effect. Now, we’re afraid to know what that connection is. It is easier to not know. Ignorance is bliss.
2024 is my year of Wonder.
And I say this as a lifelong, card-carrying cynic.
You know the feeling of awe. Awe is passive, it is amazement, and it usually passes. But, if you can catch it in the moment, then it might just be the thing that sets off your sense of wonder.
Wonder requires asking questions without immediately needing to come to an answer. Wonder is wanting to take notes and photographs, to think on things, and to ask about the how and the why as if no one has ever asked before.
It’s not about finding the lock that fits the key, but by asking why they might have locked the door in the first place. What are you keeping out? What are they keeping in?
How do you make sense of this world without asking it to make sense for you?