Fear + Wonder = Joy

Photo: Sarawut Intarob

I’m not a biblical scholar, but I have always loved the phrase “…I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” (Psalm 14:8). To me, it gives huge insight into who we are. We are simultaneously scared of our ugliness and amazed at our own beauty, and we are designed to be this way. It seems to me that this balance between fear and wonder—fearfulness and wonderfulness—is critical not just to our own survival, but to living a joyful life.

If we only focus on our fearfulness, we will be discouraged from ever leaving our homes and going into the world. We may even not be able to get out of bed. The paralysis of reasonable fears as well as irrational ones will overtake us. Beyond that extreme problem, there is a more subtle one. Even if we manage to leave the house and go about our daily routines, if we are only afraid, we will not feel alive. Being able to see our own wonderfulness is essential to feeling authentically present.

On the other hand, if we are only aware of our wonderfulness, we will be oblivious to the negative effects we can have on other people and ourselves. These effects occur through the course of living, often by mistake but sometimes on purpose. We will damage ourselves by taking adventurous steps on a grandiose journey that does not benefit from the wisdom of appropriate fears.

There’s a general thrust in popular culture and especially pop psychology that suggests we should find ways to ignore or remove the fear and to focus only on wonder or beauty. The belief seems to be that this positive focus will bring us joy. But what really brings us joy? What is the central essence of joy?

Joy or happiness is not a product. It’s not even a service. It seems to me that joy is the result of being connected to all parts of ourselves. Including our fear, including our wonder. Clinical psychologists know that integrating all that there is inside of us—balancing fear and wonder and everything else—is one very important key to joyfulness.

It seems to me that the scientific process can point toward one way to integrate all this. To do proper science, scientists have to become aware of any internal biases—any fears or blind spots—we may have about our object of wonder. We need to hold both cards, the wonder card and the fear card. The way we do that is by asking questions of ourselves even as we ask questions of nature. Did I think this up, or is this real? Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? What are the data telling me?

The questions, regardless of the answers, put us on a path that includes both fear and wonder, because questioning allows everything to come up in answer to the questions. Nothing is sure, so everything can be seen. The questions are the great integrators. Ask questions, I say, and you get joy as an answer.

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