The Humility of Wonder

by Karl Smerecnik on December 2, 2011

“Sincerity must be bought at a price: the humility to recognize our innumerable errors, and fidelity in tirelessly setting them right.” – Thomas Merton

The mountain of my ignorance is vast. Photo by Padmanbhan Thangaraj

The pursuit of wonder can be a very humbling path. In wonder, there is a recognition of all that I don’t know nor understand, an awareness of the limits of my experience and knowledge. It’s like arriving at what I think is the peak of the mountain to only see a higher and steeper climb still to go and remembering that this journey is never ending.

Recently I have been learning more about the impact of privilege. I have been learning that my life as an American white male has had and continues to have so many privileges that many other people in the USA and the world will never have. I am realizing, at a slower pace than I would like, how so much of my mindset has been shaped by this position. I am learning how people in a position of privilege, people who are in the norm, rarely see nor understand the extent and impact of their privilege. And that that is the very nature of privilege, the fact that a person has the power to choose whether or not they want to see the impacts of your lifestyle.

This is something I studied years ago and thought I understood but I’m realizing that the limits of my knowledge are greater than I thought. Another peak of my ignorance has appeared before me.

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” – Socrates

A Miniscule Example of Privilege

One of my new life teachers, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, conducts a powerful exercise on privilege that serves as a good illustration of what I am learning.

In a room of diverse individuals she has everyone stand side by side along a line. She asks a long series of questions and has the individuals take a step forward or backward depending on the question. “If you had help from your parents on homework in school, take a step forward.” “If English is your native language, take a step forward.” “If you went to college, take a step forward.” “If you have never been made fun of for your sexual orientation, take a step forward.”

By the time the series of questions have finished, the room is vastly divided. She asks everyone to continue looking straight ahead and without moving, have the participants explain who they can see. Obviously those near the front of the room, most of whom are white, see only themselves or possibly no one. So it is with privilege. (see the Daily Effects of White Privilege list for more)

Maintaining The Humility of Wonder

It is because I am privileged that I even write about wonder. For the most part, this whole blog has been focused on topics only relevant to people with a privileged lifestyle. My ignorance of that up until now makes me sad. I don’t know what to do about this.

“If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.” – Gail Sheehy

I want to learn how to continually remain open to the the possibility of being limited in my understanding, be willing to change my perspectives and behaviors, and not criticize myself throughout this process. I have a tendency of having thoughts such as, “you should have known that” or “it’s pathetic that you don’t understand that.” This path of learning and growing requires brutal self-honesty and a recognition that growth and change are the only ways forward. But it must be balanced with self-compassion. If I berate myself for my lack of understanding, it will not sustain the change I wish to be.

Each time I stumble on this journey, I want to accept it with grace and responsibility. Each time I see a new peak in the distance, I want to humbly remember the vastness of this mountain and move onward. And each time I become frustrated by my rate of progress, I want to remember to enjoy the beauty that surrounds me along the way.

What has been your experience of the humility of wonder?

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