Chesterton on Childlike Wonder

Childlike wonder is something most of us – if not all of us – have lost. Chesterton helps us to see the importance of regaining this childlike wonder.

First. Why we have lost our childlike wonder?

1: We have forgotten who we are.

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 (46).

2: We have become “scientific” and bored by assuming that the weird repetitions we see in the universe are rational and inevitable.

We use words from science books like “‘law,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘order,’ ‘tendency,’ and so on,” to describe Nature “because [we] assume an inner synthesis” which does not exist (45). We talk “as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically” (44). We have been “soaked and swept away by mere associations” (45). We are not “strong enough to exult in monotony” (52). We look at many a men as only “Great Might-Have-Beens” (56). We think that this world explains itself (57).

Second. What is childlike wonder? 

Childlike wonder is to see that the terms used in fairy books, like “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment,” (45) are the only satisfactory words to describe Nature because Nature is a mystery.

A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched (45).

Childlike wonder is to understand and obey the Doctrine of Conditional Joy.

In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone (48).

Childlike wonder is the source of “all the fire of the fairy tales” (45).

This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door (46).

Childlike wonder is to be utterly amazed that we even have life and music and colours and sex… that “life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege” (56).

The leaf on the tree is green because it could never have been anything else. Now, the fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every colour has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden roses is not only decisive but dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood. He feels that something has been s (51).

To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been (56).

Men (I felt) might fast forty days for the sake of hearing a blackbird sing (50).

I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself…Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once (49-50).

Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore (52).

Third. How Can We Regain Our Childlike Wonder? 

1. “It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island…

2. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck” (56).

3. Look around at the different colours you see today. Consider that they could have been any other colour, the green grass could have been purple. See it as dramatic, that something has been done! 

4. Walk around the street and look at people and consider how they are really Great-Might-Not-Have-Beens!

5. Read this response Chesterton gave to his fiancee when she complained that he did not tell her what his daily routine was like. Try writing it out for yourself. Be amazed at this universe!

 

WHAT WE SAY HAPPENS EVERY DAY

What we all say happens every day is this:

I wake up
dress myself
eat bacon and bread and coffee for breakfast
walk up to High St. Station
take a fourpenny ticket for Blackfriars
read the Chronicle in the train
arrive at 11, read a manuscript…

[I] go out to lunch…
come back, work till six,
take my hat and walking-stick and come home
have dinner at home
write the novel till 11
then write to you and go to bed.

“That is what we, in our dreamy, deluded way, really imagine is the thing that happens.”

WHAT REALLY HAPPENS EVERY DAY

Next, Chesterton walks through the same day, describing what actually happens. Watch him marvel at the extraordinary wonders we encounter in everyday existence.

The Wonder of Waking Up 

“Out of the starless night of the Uncreated, that was before the stars, a soul begins to grope back to light. It gropes its way through strange, half-lighted chambers of Dreams, where in a brown and gold twilight, it sees many things that are dimly significant, true stories twisted into new and amazing shapes, human beings whom it knew long ago, sitting at the windows by dark sunsets, or talking in dim meadows.

“But the awful invading Light grows stronger in the dreams, till the soul in one last struggle, plunges into a body, as into a house and wakes up within it.”

Getting Out of Bed 

“Then he rises and finds himself in a wonderful vast world of white light and clear, frankly colored shapes, an inheritor of a million stars. On enquiry he is informed that his name is Gilbert Keith Chesterton. This amuses him.”

Dressing

“He goes through a number of extraordinary and fantastic rituals; which the pompous elfland he has entered demands.

“The first is that he shall get inside a house of clothing, a tower of wool and flax; that he shall put on this foolish armor solemnly, one piece after another and each in its right place. The things called sleevelinks he attends to minutely. His hair he beats angrily with a bristly tool. For this is the Law.

Eating

“Downstairs a more monstrous ceremony attends him. He has to put things inside himself. He does so, being naturally polite. Nor can it be denied that a weird satisfaction follows.”

Buying a Train Ticket

“He takes a sword in his hand (for what may not befall him in so strange a country!) and goes forth. He finds a hole in the wall, a little cave wherein sits One who can give him the charm that rules the horse of water and fire.”

Getting On the Underground Train

“He finds an opening and descends into the bowels of the earth. Down, among the roots of the Eternal hills, he finds a sunless temple wherein he prays. And in the center of it he finds a lighted temple in which he enters.

“Then there are noises as of an earthquake and smoke and fire in the darkness: and when he opens the door again he is in another temple, out of which he climbs into another world, leagues and leagues away. And when he asks the meaning of the vision, they talk gibberish and say, ‘It is a train’.”

Work and Dinner

“So the day goes, full of eerie publishers and elfin clerks, till he returns and again puts things inside him, and then sits down and makes men in his own head and writes down all that they said and did. And last of all comes the real life itself.”

Writing Out His Thoughts

“For half-an-hour he writes words upon a scrap of paper, words that are not picked and chosen like those that he has used to parry the strange talk of the fold all day, but words in which the soul’s blood pours out, like the body’s blood from a wound.

“He writes secretly this mad diary,

all his passion and longing,
all his queer religion,
his dark and dreadful gratitude to God,
his idle allegories,
the tales that tell themselves in his head;
the joy that comes on him sometimes (he cannot help it) at the sacred intoxication of existence:
the million faults of idleness and recklessness and the one virtue of the unconquered adoration of goodness,
that dark virtue that every man has, and hides deeper than all his vices!”

Mailing the Letter

“He writes all this down as he is writing it now. And he knows that if he sticks it down and puts a stamp on it and drops it into the mouth of a little red goblin at the corner of the street – he knows that all this world soliloquy will be poured into the soul of one wise and beautiful lady sitting far away beyond seas and rivers and cities, under the shadow of an alien Cathedral.”

 

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