You know that feeling? When everything you were building burns down? The planks of a reasonable life you’ve laid crumble underneath you, and you find yourself free-falling like Alice down a hole that feels bottomless. You don’t know who you are. You’re clueless about whom you might become.
For me, after a fire literally burned down my dream house one July, I peeled a paperback edition of William James’s essays on psychology from the charred wall of my study. The book had been compressed into the wall from the pressure of the firefighters’ hose. I ripped from my burnt walnut desk a copy of Buddhist psychologist Mark Epstein’s book Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart.
It hadn’t been an easy summer, even before the fire. My wife, Hillary, and I had recently married. A year before our wedding, we’d bought the 1850 farmhouse in New York’s Hudson Valley. I was the resolute dreamer and writer and consultant. She, the quiet but determined acupuncturist, professor, and business owner. We were ready to build our lives, our mutual businesses, maybe some day a family. At 43, this was the first stable relationship and the first stable home I’d ever had.
That first summer married, we had two miscarriages. A tick bit me in the gut and I contracted Lyme’s Disease. The spirochete felt burrowed into my shins. The brutal antibiotics slammed me on my back, exhausted and brain-fogged.
Then, that July afternoon, in a freak electric storm, lightning struck our house. It ignited a faulty wire. Flames roared through my study, destroying more than 300 books. These volumes had been my altar, my archive of 20 years. Up in smoke. My laptop with my next manuscript melted. Firefighters arrived, water-logging what remained.
We were out of our home for a year and a half. The water- and smoke-damaged house had to be stripped to its bones and rebuilt. That spirochete never left my body, and within 10 months another tick bit.
Getting through the day felt like trying to drive 70 miles per hour in second gear.
How do you navigate times like these? A home destroyed. One’s health compromised. For some, a relationship crumbling like the walls of a burnt-out house. Is the highest aim merely to get through the day as unscathed as possible?
I don’t think so. There is, I learned, a surprising ally during adverse times. It’s one I’d been tracking, then tested in this conflagration of my life. It’s one you likely know, too: wonder.
Wonder is an aesthetic experience; we feel it when Joshua Bell’s violin virtuosity sweeps us away. Wonder is a cognitive experience; we feel it when an idea dazzles us with mind-blowing possibility. Wonder is an emotion, discrete and subtle and always fleeting. It’s the red fox of emotions. Now you feel it. Now you don’t.
The feeling of being cracked utterly open to beauty, even in sadness, is a form of wonder. Your heart is startled into openness by a moment of stark beauty before you.
Before we feel real love for another, we feel a tinge of wonder. An openness to this other person, a receptiveness deeper than curiosity, holding us spellbound. If we’re fortunate, moments like that continue throughout our relationship. We’re wondrous at the quirky way he makes hoisin-glazed pork chops, the singular way she pronounces “r”s. Even after an argument, the lamplight might have captured her cheek bones just so and you saw again her true beauty.
Why does wonder matter so much in times of heart-breaking sadness? Because adversity can spur a crisis of identity and of creativity. “Who are you?” the caterpillar asks Alice. Who, indeed? In such confusion, with little view of the future, you can slip into further misery and despair. You feel as if you’re dropping down that rabbit hole with no agency. When our attention fixates on the unfairness of our best-laid plans gone awry, our senses and our perspective shut down. Worry blocks our vision. From that dark and low place, your creativity seems shattered, out of commission, just at a time when you need hope and openness to create something new.
Fostering wonder expands what we see. It can essentially fertilize the self beneath the confusion, help us be creative during such trying times. Wonder lets us accept the uncertainty rather than flee to the next easy answer—or the next available relationship—just to placate the discomfort.
Wonder is a surprising—and very grown-up—ally when you’re experiencing adversity. We can most surely cultivate wonder in a divorce.
1. Pause. Gaze. Praise.
When you catch your mind getting caught in vicious circles of anger or despair, notice it. Pause and anchor your eyes on one ordinary object. A tea kettle. A lettuce leaf. A computer mouse. Observe the outer shape, form, texture and design as if it were in a museum. Let your eyes glide over the object from left to right. Appreciate its function. Don’t be surprised or embarrassed if you suddenly want to cry before such simple beauty. Seeing as if for the first time the beauty of ordinary objects or the music of everyday life helps us open up again to possibility. Everyday beauty reminds us that our lives are so much more than the negative stories spinning inside our minds.
2. Create a wonder cabinet.
We can shrink from unwanted, massive change, or we can step back and marvel at the existence of the unknown before us. In the 16th-century, explorers and philosophers began pushing the bounds of the known world in new ways. In these uncertain and ever-changing times, individuals began collecting remnants of these explorations or curiosities found in their daily lives, and keeping them in “curiosity cabinets,” or “cabinets of marvels,” or “wonder cabinets.” A curiosity cabinet turns the uncertain into a science project, a form of wonder; it lets us meet crisis with curiosity rather than fear.
For a month, devote a corner of your home or office to your private wonder cabinet. Collect objects, articles, images, and textures that speak to you. Use your “Pause. Gaze. Praise” eye to notice curiosities on your drive to work, in your backyard. You don’t have to do anything with the items except collect and arrange them. The simple act of doing so redirects your attention to something more creative without the pressure of performing, figuring things out, or having answers.
Then let that practice help you adopt an explorer’s attitude toward your troubles. Instead of dwelling on depressing, wheel-spinning questions such as, “Why did this happen to me?” use your curiosity cabinet to guide your imagination to more expansive questions: “Who might I become?” or “What fascinates me about this one life?” or “What if I could…?”
3. Start that novel (or sonnet or garden)! Rebrand Your Life.
A time of chaos is perfect for testing a project that’s burned inside you: that book idea, that business venture, that side project that’s collected dust in your mind’s basement. Throwing yourself into a creative dream not only redirects your attention to the act of making something, but it also helps you gradually “rebrand” yourself, expanding your identity. A brand is an idea and association about something.
In a difficult marriage, we begin to see ourselves in a limiting way, as may others. We feel bound by certain ideas, values, and endeavors. But here’s the remarkable thing: You become what you make. For a while, don’t worry about making something to show others. Just play. Discover. Molding clay or doodling on a sketchpad or in notebook helps you make art out of adversity and, in that act, you begin to see—and feel—new options.
When a young Carl Jung had a falling out with his mentor, Freud, he had big questions about his future and whether or not he was living in integrity. Jung had been studying the world’s mythologies, and extrapolating very different ideas about our mind than those of his mentor. For a few weeks after the fallout, Jung wandered into the woods behind his house and played with stones. He made castles and houses and, pretty soon, entire villages. His wife worried, but he knew this was what he needed to do to sort through his questions and begin to assume agency of his life’s next leg.
One day, while playing with the stones, he said he heard a voice of sorts that asked, “And what is the myth you’re living?” The question was a call for Jung to live his life according to his theories.
Several years later when his wife died, he returned to making things with stones as a way to work his way through grief.
For me, wonder in a time of adversity looked like this: The day after the fire that destroyed my house, I returned to the property to assess the damage. The walls and ceiling of my study had more holes than when we’d fled the night before. I stood before a charred black wall, dizzy with both a load of anger, and a shred of acceptance. It was like the mix of emotion I’d felt years before, when my first wife had declared, “I don’t think the Universe has us destined to stay together.” There was an unfortunate ring of rightness, muted by the rage of disbelief.
On that morning, among the black rubble, a small fluttering of yellow appeared in the black. A yellow monarch butterfly had slipped in and landed on a smoked-out shelf. Its fuzzy torso was the size of a baby’s finger. It carried two enormous paragliding wings, etched like stained glass panels. They waved back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
For a moment, the grip inside me dissolved, my own body’s aches slipped away. A strange sense of opening swept through me, wide and free. Among the ruins of our simple dreams, there fluttered a small winged hope. Literally. A smile formed on my face.
Almost two years later, Hillary and I at last moved back to the farmhouse, a home rebuilt better than before. We also remodeled a room for our three-month-old baby girl. One crisp morning, I took her for a walk down the road. I walked slowly, still affected by the Lyme. But no matter. The crimson and golden leaves fluttered around us. I stopped and looked into my infant girl’s sky-wide blue eyes and made a silent two-fold vow: To learn again from her the art of not-knowing, and to live a life so rich with creativity and wonder that she would eagerly await becoming a grown-up, too.
Jeffrey Davis is a consultant, speaker, and author of the poetry collection Coat Thief (Saint Julian Press) and The Journey from the Center of the Page. He lives in New York's Hudson Valley with his wife and two girls. Find him online at trackingwonder.com.