Distance and the Wonder of Existence



Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park


“…we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.’  – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Yes, Chesterton’s “ancient instinct of astonishment”!

And perhaps it’s best forced upon us when we are shocked out of our inner worlds of self-focus by the incomprehensible distances of time and space.

This is the feeling I had years ago when I experienced the Milky Way in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  I remember feeling deafened and crushed!  It felt as if the stars were screaming at me, silencing my inner world of incessant commentary.

I was shocked out of my inner universe by the real universe.

I felt fearful of the real distance, if that makes sense.  Pascal said something about this when he wrote:  “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me”.

I was put in my place, in other words, and this allowed for that ancient sense of wonder to rise up from within me once again.

I feel this when I visit the coast of the Olympic Peninsula, one of my favorite places on planet Earth.  The endless expanse of the ocean, the towering cliffs ruling over me, and the enormous rocks jutting out of the coastline like giants’ thrones, make me feel both very small and like I don’t belong.

My existence is wholly unnecessary!

Perhaps this wonder, then, helps us remember what is everywhere present, therefore so easily overlooked:  the improbability of existence.

Why are apples green and not purple?  Why do frogs jump?  Why are we here and not somewhere else?  Why do I have two legs instead of four?

It’s all very unnecessary and extravagant!

I wondered if we forget to feel the wonder of existence because we abuse the gift of autonomy.  We think we have it all figured out, especially today in our modern world.  We kill our own sense of wonder.  Plus, our infinite self-focus creates an infinite distance from the real world – a world of legs and frogs and stars.

We get caught up in our inner world too easily.  C. S. Lewis said that our intellects are “incurably abstract.”

I think our sense of wonder is weakened by sin and suffering.  We pull back into ourselves from their effects.  We retreat back into the vast distances of our inner universe for protection.

But wonder restores us.  It “heals the wound” of our sinful abuse of autonomy by beckoning us out of ourselves (from C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism).

Love, literature, dance, art, music, nature, the heavens, true friendships, goodness, truth, beauty … indeed all of these help us forget for a moment the solitude of autonomy.

They help us remember what we have forgotten – the wonder of existence.

“Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”  ~ G.K. Chesterton

UPDATE:  Even science is learning this truth … finally.  We scientists can be a little slow sometimes.  Read more here:  It’s Not All About You! Not only will the experience of awe make us feel alive, it might also help us conquer our daily self-absorption. All this by simply paying attention to nature and the world around us.





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