Renewing a Basic Awe

The Missing Spark

I sat in the doctor’s office and stared at the anatomy diagrams on the wall. When I got to the human skeleton, that’s when it hit me—it’s the same feeling that hits me once every now and then—the renewing of a fundamental shock and awe, as if I had just been born all over again. It scares me to bits, and in a strange way, I relish it.

Scientific diagrams of human anatomy are meticulously labeled. Every muscle and bone has a name. There is no mystery as to what’s inside of us, but there is mystery as to what it’s doing there. I am stunned into silence by this return to first principles; the stunning realization that this was all here before us. It was here by itself, and we had no hand in it.

If I, as a nondescript sentient being, saw a skeleton hanging on the wall, I would ask: “where did that come from?” If somebody told me: “Well, it was just there when I got here,” it would positively scare the crap out of me.

My exposure to coloured academic textbooks has numbed this sense of awe. When I see an illustration in a book, there is a subtle suggestion that the creator of the book is also the creator of the thing being illustrated. All these diagrams of skeletons with their labels cannot wipe away the truth—that we are putting labels on something that was just there. We are outsiders, staring up at an array of bones and nerves that we’ve discovered only as recently as we woke up on this earth. The sun and the moon were there before a single human being had a single scientific thought. They do not have names. All our labeling and deconstruction of the unknown has not given us any more ownership of it than we had in the first place.

There is only one quality in a naturalist that I genuinely despise, and that is the lack of a basic awe. The quality that causes a person to preface scientific explanations with “just,” as in, “it is just a rainbow.” The nonchalant attitude towards our being here, that we find ourselves living and breathing, that the sun rises each morning, and that things are the way they are. The insensitivity to the fact that when you try to figure out what it’s all made out of, it keeps getting stranger until eventually you hit a snag.

In a first-year geology class, a calm and collected professor gave a brief, simple account of the origins of the universe. When he was finished, there was a pervading silence in the lecture hall. “Talk about other theories,” someone eventually said. “Yeah, religion,” someone else called out. Why is this? Is it because scientific explanations aren’t any good, or is it because people know, intuitively, that the explanation can’t be brief and simple? That the natural response to the correct explanation cannot be calmness and collectedness?

All these splayed-out tree roots, deep blue nights and star clusters were once unblemished by analysis, and all our scientific endeavours are not inventions, but mere rearrangements and observations of something great and unfathomable. A tree is not an instance of the essence of “tree” as defined in an academic textbook; the human definition of the essence of tree succeeded the real trees.

Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean that it’s “perfectly logical,” doesn’t mean that it’s safe, and doesn’t mean that that you own it.


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