For Want of Wonder (Part 2)
I have cynical tendencies I wish I didn't have.
Over the past few years, especially, I've come to recognize those tendencies; and while recognition may be half the battle, the other half is still no picnic. It's a moment-by-moment thing, as fighting with the Old Man always is, and it recommences with every new day whether I'm ready or not. I'm usually not, but sanctification isn't one of those deals you get to opt in or out of as you feel like it.
I've already talked a little about the wonder that pervades Chesterton's writing — it should be easy as pie to see how such wonder is a death knell to cynicism. (It's hard to grouse about the glass being half empty when the very existence of the glass and its contents amazes you.) But if the right kind of wonder is a death knell to cynicism, it's also a death knell to mawkish optimism. Reading Chesterton, you're reminded to keep your eyes open as wide as you possibly can. You see the beauty and the ugliness. The trick is remembering which one wins.
To frame it in different terms: the right kind of wonder involves knowing the difference between the paper and the ink. In his essay “Tolerating Other Religions”, Chesterton writes,
A black-and-white artist always treats one or other colour as the background. The artist may be scrawling black on white, when he is an illustrator in pen-and-ink. He may be scrawling white on black, when he is a schoolboy chalking the schoolmaster's nose on the chalkboard. But the pen-and-ink artist knows that the page is white previous to the arrival of the pen and ink. The wicked schoolboy knows that the blackboard is black. So we, as Christians, should always believe that this is a white world with black spots, not a black world with white spots. I should always believe the good in it was its primary plan.
I am reminded of a line from Karl Marlantes' book What It Is Like to Go to War, “Cynicism is merely the flip side of naiveté. You’re no more mature, only more burned.” Wrapping one's head and heart around this truth is crucial, especially if one's tendency (like mine) is to think the answer to that annoying twit Pollyanna is Bender from The Breakfast Club. A jaded outlook is no better - and in some ways worse - than a rose-colored one. We love our false dichotomies, but they always hurt us in the end. The cynic blindfolds himself against the light, the sentimentalist against the darkness, and they both stroll off the cliff. Chesterton begs us to be done with blindfolds altogether. Cliffs, metaphorical or otherwise, are bad for one's health.
“Behold,” says Christ, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) The temptation is to see these virtues as mutually exclusive, but they are not, and Chesterton reminds us that they are not. Shrewdness and wonderment can be flat-mates. You can be filled with awe without being a bloomin' idiot.
It's a fine line. The right ones always are. God give us the grace to walk it