On competence and wonder

Until recently, I never would have thought of there being any connection between competence and wonder. But I’ve been thinking about them lately because of what I read in a book by Eugene Peterson.

I’ll write more about the book when I’ve finished it, but there is so much in it that I plan to write separate posts about some topics. One is about Sabbath-keeping, which Peterson approaches in a different way from anything I had read on the subject previously.

Peterson makes a fairly common observation that children experience a sense of wonder frequently, but adults much less so. What is different is his explanation. Usually, I think, the reasons given have to do with being too busy, too wrapped up in what we think are important concerns but that often are actually distracting us from what is really most important in life.

Peterson instead points to competence, of all things, as being responsible for losing a sense of wonder.

But gradually a sense of wonder gets squeezed out of us. There are many reasons, but mostly the lessening of wonder takes place as we develop in competence and gain mastery over ourselves and our environment.
The workplace is where this diminishing sense of wonder goes on most consistently and thoroughly. … Information and competence are key values here. We don’t want any surprises.

I don’t think Peterson is denigrating competence. Incompetence is hardly a virtue. But as he points out, competence leads to a greater degree of control over one’s circumstances, and that means things are more predictable, and less surprising. Since surprise is an aspect of wonder, I suppose reducing the possibility of surprises reduces one’s openness to wonder.

The answer, Peterson says, is Sabbath-keeping. The weekly cessation of work provides not only a respite from labor and its attendant stresses (physical, mental, or emotional), but also provides new opportunities for wonder. Whatever the activities that replace work, they play less to our well-developed competencies, and thus open us to surprises.

Sabbath activities traditionally include community worship and time spent with family. Any time spent with a group of people, especially a group that includes children, is likely to lead to surprises. I suppose some people happen to have a competence that includes dealing with people, but I imagine that Peterson would suggest that true Sabbath-keeping would mean refraining from exercising one’s competence in ways that seek to control other people.

My first reaction to this was marveling at this new insight, and wondering how to incorporate it into my life. Soon, however, I started to ask myself whether Peterson’s was correct to attribute a loss of wonder to developing competence. It just doesn’t seem right that something as positive as competence should be responsible for losing something as positive as wonder.

I suppose, considering the matter theologically, that this could be considered an aspect of living in a fallen world. Yet my impression from the first chapter of Genesis is that Sabbath-keeping is an inherent part of Creation, prior to the Fall. Could increasing competence have led to decreasing wonder in an unfallen world? If not, what would Peterson point to as the main point of Sabbath-keeping?

Perhaps it has less to do with competence itself, and more with our (fallen) desire to use our competence to achieve greater control of our circumstances? If we think about it, we realize that ultimately our sense of control is largely illusory. Any day, any moment, anything or everything that we have could be taken away through some unpredictable circumstance.

Yet in our day-to-day living, we do exercise a fair amount of control – certainly compared to young children. I choose what to buy in the supermarket and what to cook; my son can choose only from among the foods I chose to buy. In the short-term, I may not have a great deal of choice what tasks I have to do at work, but the job I have is the result of a number of choices I made in terms of education, training, and jobs I have applied for and taken in the past.

The job I have now also gives me a fair amount of flexibility in terms of what I do when during the day, when I take breaks, and the specifics of how I do the work. Not every job offers that degree of flexibility, but many do. Some elementary school classrooms do also, these days – but that depends a great deal on the school and on the teacher, over which the child has no say at all.

Does my control over these aspects of my life reduce my sense of wonder, though? If I had a more regimented job, if someone else told me what to eat and what to wear, and even how to spend my free time, would I really have any greater sense of wonder?

I don’t know if I’m just resisting the idea that I need to give up control, or give up doing household work once a week (since I already do not have to do work for a living on weekends), but I can’t help thinking that children have a greater sense of wonder for some other reason.

Is it because they simply have experienced less, and are experiencing so much more for the first time? Is it because they do not have the same ability to reason their way to explanations, and thus see things as marvels that are simple logic to their elders?

Or is it because their goals are different? Does a focus on accomplishment – whether accompanied by the competence to actually accomplish one’s goals or not – make one less open to wonder? As a child, I was very focused on competence and accomplishment.

I can’t remember a time when I was not concerned about demonstrating how smart I was, how much I knew – and especially how much more than other children my own age. And I don’t remember ever having much of a sense of wonder. I wanted to belong to the adult world, and I looked down on children who simply acted like children.

I suppose one could argue that I learned competence too soon, without ever being trained in Sabbath-keeping. I didn’t have much to do that would be considered work, either schoolwork (because I easily finished it in school) or household chores (I had some but they were not particularly time-consuming, or else they were ones I did by choice). But whatever I spent my time doing, it was important to me to do it well.

All that is decades in the past, of course. Now is a time when I can try to learn to recover a sense of wonder – or to develop one I never really had much of. I don’t know whether deliberately choosing activities apart from my areas of competence will help – I’m not even sure what kind of activities to think about choosing if that is the goal.

Mostly, I have trouble figuring out how to go about doing anything without focusing on trying to do it well…

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One Response to On competence and wonder

  1. modestypress says:

    My take on this is probably completely different than yours. Humans are the only animals tortured by two realizations:

    1) We are going to die. [Other intelligent animals — primates, whales/orcas/dolphins, crows/ravens, octopi, elephants, etc. — seem to have some awareness of death, but nothing like our abstract reasoning despair].

    2) Most of us have a sense of right and wrong and fair and unfair, and we realize in this life, the word “fair” often does not apply. The good are often not rewarded. The wicked are often not punished.

    3) Curiosity and related emotions such as wonder provide survival value and aesthetic enjoyment. Most of us get pleasure out of figuring things out, discovering new things, manipulating and controlling the world.

    But if we were not most of the time lamenting our mortality and the unfairness of the universe, we could enjoy our wonder a lot more.

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