child in front of aquarium - curiosity

In spiritual literature there is often an admonition to stay childlike. Childlike is very different from childish. Of course these are just words referring to different aspects of our human development, but I think we can appreciate that distinction. There’s a reason why we progress from our entirely dependent babyhood to a somewhat mobile and slightly independent toddler, through adolescence and adulthood, as well as our more senior years. In that development there are childish aspects, capacities not fully developed. With proper care, nature and nurture, these capacities will develop into a functional adult. But there’s always that wonderful aspect of being childlike, characterized by wonder, joy, a sense of discovery and curiosity.

We well know from our own experience that much of that sense of wonder and childlike quality gets subdued by societal pressures and bureaucracy. There are many factors to consider but, roughly speaking, many parents still tell their children to grow up and get to know the real world. What they’re referring to are economic pressures, societal pressures, and so forth. The majority of people succumb to those pressures and, while there are many examples of wonder and delight, for many people the so-called real life scenarios take over. I might be accused of being in a nice position to write about these things, being economically well off, and in all other aspects of life without much worry. Then again there are many examples of people under much more dire circumstances who still maintain that sense of wonder and contentment with life exactly as it is for them in their circumstances (mind you, ever-changing circumstances!).

Let me give you a personal example of the magnificence of life and the sense of wonder from my own work. I work in the area of computational biology. We have, as a community of scientists, figured out a lot of things about the genetics that determine different life plans. Every organism, be it the tiny nematode or the lion or us, has a blueprint for much of their make-up in terms of genetic material that is called DNA. We’re now able to sequence that DNA and get to the entire text of this genetic blueprint of any organism and any individual, rather cheaply and quickly. That information gets stored in computer files, analyzed and processed for databases, an activity that comprises a large part of my professional research area. It takes many years of training to learn all the various aspects of this work.

Sometimes when I give lectures I try to break through the bureaucratic thinking in the science field. I will begin my lecture showing a small USB stick. I just hold it up and ask, “Does anybody know what this is?” Anytime you ask a question in public, in my experience people think you’re trying to trick them. It’s an interesting experiment. There will be some curious looks, some hesitation, and eventually someone will say, “It’s a USB stick.” You keep probing a little bit and discuss it, and soon we agree that it’s a storage device for computer files, and in order to figure out what is on this stick you need to plug it into a computer device and use programs to read that information. Then I will show a bag containing seeds, typically grass seeds. I ask again, “Does anybody know what this is?” I’ll get the same hesitation, until eventually somebody will say, “It looks like seeds.” Somebody may say “It looks like grass seed,” or “It could be wild rice,” or something like this. So we all agree these are seeds. Then I’ll ask, “What experiment would we have to do in order to find out what is written in this seed?” Soon enough we come up with a very short list: we need some soil, water, and we need light. Then we wait, and something extraordinary happens; that seed develops into a plant.

We know that some seeds have survived hundreds of years. The miracle of how life solves the storage of information problem is even more astonishing on that time scale, which goes way back before we as human beings invented computers. Think about this: you have this tiny seed, and out of that comes an entire plant. This plant is part of an ecosystem and interacts with many other plants, animals and so forth. Often animals are involved in propagation of plant seeds. Thus it just takes a little bit of stepping back from your usual framework of thinking to be reminded that this miraculous life is indeed all around us. Even with our most advanced science and probing, we understand just a tiny, tiny fraction of all of this.

I think it’s natural, healthy and wonderful to study life and everything around us—to do research, to learn about different aspects and how it all fits together. But all this is meaningless if it’s driven by an isolated human ego. As Einstein pointed out, the starting point for any of our activities needs to be our recognition that we’re an integral part of that life, that force that’s animating us and everything around us. I’m privileged in having a job in society where this very activity is part of my job description.

I would say, for anybody in any profession, there is that very seed that rightly attracted the person to be active in that activity in the first place—that very same seed of wonder, of curiosity, of being part of the flow of life. Consider teaching as an example. Human development goes through infancy to mature adults and there’s a lot of teaching along the way. What is the core of teaching? What is the sense of wonder in a teacher? I think invariably, if you talk to a teacher—no matter how burdened they may have become by the realities of their situation—they will have these moments of absolute delight, where their reward was in an interaction with a pupil when they conveyed something and the pupil understood, and in that synergy, both recognized that they have played exactly their part in the larger web of life!

What if you are a construction worker? I have been in the process of building a house, and for many years before that in the process of remodelling another house. I’ve had interactions with carpenters and with tiling crews. Every evening when they leave, I’ve thanked them personally and said, “Thank you for making this place a more beautiful place. You, as the workman, must get great satisfaction out of constantly making people’s surrounds more beautiful.” I have found that these workmen invariably respond positively to that sense of appreciation. They don’t hear it all the time—probably not often enough. Often they may hear complaints. I’m not saying that some correction here and there isn’t in order, but the essence of building is to create, and to create something beautiful, functional, something that enhances our lives individually and as a community.

If you look at the essence of business, it is to provide goods and services needed for the creative fulfillment of customers. Actually no matter where you look, that quality evident in young children and those young at heart, that quality of the wonder of life, the joy of being alive, the appreciation for the miracle of life, the unending curiosity and will to contribute—these characteristics are the essence of life itself, and therefore our essence.

There will be times when we’re stuck in a situation where the sense of wonder and miracle may not be obvious to us. There may be a health situation, financial situation, relationship situation; there may be people who are dear to us who face challenges. But even in a difficult situation there can be that very same sense of wonder and joy, if only in the sense of, “I’m curious how this situation will change and how this will develop.” It’s all part of this almighty force of Life, and we’re in the midst of it.

Read more on this topic in PAUSE TO WONDER: My sense of god is my sense of wonder about the universe>>

Volker Brendel received his M.Sc. degree in Applied Statistics from the University of Oxford, UK, in 1981 and his doctorate in Life Sciences from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, in 1986. Volker’s research interests span molecular biology, statistical modelling, and algorithm development, with applications in the field of genome informatics. Volker’s other interests include reading, aikido, and gardening.

image: vicki wolkins via Compfight (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)