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Why we should make more time for wonder

Making the case for less busyness, less intense thinking, more calm and more connection.
Wonder allows the mind to imagine, to create, to simply roam free, just like the majestic animals that I encountered in the vast Serengeti.Courtesy Maria Shriver

In August, I stepped away from work, email and all social media. I called it “a spiritual break” and, for me, it was an opportunity to step back from the noise of the day-to-day and reflect on what I’m really seeking in life. (I wanted to make good on Rumi’s quote, “What you are seeking is seeking you.”)

Turns out, I was seeking less busyness. Less intense thinking. More calm. More connection. More wonder.

Wonder gets you out of your head. It feels less intense than thinking. It feels more stream of consciousness and more creative. It actually feels freeing and it allows one to connect more with oneself and others.

As I set out for Africa with my youngest son Christopher at the beginning of August, I decided that my month would be focused on that concept of wonder.

Image: Maria Shriver and her son Christopher
Maria Shriver and her son Christopher.Courtesy Maria Shriver

Wonder is what I felt as I drove across the vast, open Serengeti. I found myself wondering what it might be like to live there full time, either working in the conservation movement or working with the women I met who are trying to overcome deep poverty and build lives that their mothers could have never imagined.

I went to Rwanda and wondered how its people have overcome the brutality of genocide and now live in a constantly evolving state of acceptance and forgiveness. (On the last Saturday of every month, they even come together as one to clean their country — the president and the people, side by side. Imagine that.)

I watched multiple generations living and working together and wondered how we might do more of that here in America, as well as how we might honor the matriarchs in our society as they do over there. They honor them for their strength, their wisdom and their vast life experiences.

I met young women in Rwanda who were studying to be leaders and who blew me away with their poise and their dreams. I watched other Rwandan women working with backhoes in the fields, planting potatoes and walking with heavy loads on their heads for miles to feed their families. I wondered about their lives and I wondered how long I could really survive living and working the way they did. (Not long, I concluded.)

I climbed into the mountains of the jungle and sat face-to-face with the silverback gorillas. I wondered about their lives as I watched the mothers nurse their babies, while their other kids played across the tops of the trees.

In my time in Africa, I wondered about all that I didn’t know (which is a lot). I wondered why it is that we (you, me, all of us) spend our time running around trying to amass followers, trying to stay relevant and thinking that we have to comment on this or that. I wondered why we worry that we might disappear or become invisible to others and to ourselves if we don’t.

Over these past few weeks, I really found myself embarking on wonder and embracing the enormity of it. Unlike thinking, wonder doesn’t force you to come to a conclusion. It allows the mind to imagine, to create, to simply roam free, just like the majestic animals that I encountered in the vast Serengeti.

I know it can be hard to allow yourself the time and/or space to wonder. I also get that not everyone can travel to Africa. But, what I came to realize during my journey abroad and back home was that once I embraced the concept of wonder, I was able to see it everywhere.

It was in my garden. It was in my children’s faces. It was in my friend’s eyes as I shared with her what I had seen and what I had felt.

It was in me, too. Yes, like a child, I found myself marveling at my own life. I found myself marveling at nature, at the beauty of my kids, at the way I felt when I heard music. I even marveled at the way I reorganized my house, throwing stuff out and getting rid of clutter that didn’t serve me anymore.

When I was in Africa, I watched the Academy Award-winning film “Out of Africa.” I wanted my son to see it, as the film had made a huge impact on me when it first came out so many years ago. I remembered feeling a deep connection to the woman played by Meryl Streep, who left her rather uptight upbringing to live more freely on a farm in Africa.

Watching it again, I found myself really struck by a line at the beginning of the film. It’s when Meryl’s character recounts the gift that the love of her life gave to her. He gave her, she said, the gift of seeing “the world through God’s eyes.” That line rocked me.

My short trip to Africa allowed me to see the world anew through God’s eyes. Stepping back and away allowed me to step into life with a new sense of awe and wonder.

I write this to you with the hope that your summer also afforded you moments of wonder and awe. If it did not, then perhaps you might ask yourself how you might incorporate those feelings into your life.

Here are a few tips from me:

  • Don’t worry your time away wondering about everything going on in the news. (Trust me, wondering whether our president did this or that, or who really wrote that op-ed, or whether the House will become Democratic in the fall, or whether the Catholic church will right itself … it all just batters the mind. Instead, get calm, get clear and get centered. That’s where your truth lies. Use your voice from that space and place. And, for God’s sake, vote this fall. It’s a travesty not to.)
  • Unfollow people or publications online that inflame, irritate or agitate you. I did that in August and it truly helped me get clear and calm.
  • Instead, open your eyes and challenge yourself to see the world through God’s eyes. Look at yourself with compassion and kindness — use a loving voice, not a critical one. Look at that person sitting next to you in the coffee shop and wonder about their life. I’ll bet their dreams and their struggles are a lot like yours.
  • Look into the eyes of your child, your partner, or others that you love and wonder about their inner lives. Make an effort to get to know them and to connect with that part of them.
  • Embark on “walk and talks” with friends. Notice how they make you feel. (I’ll bet they make you feel connected.)
  • Start hosting Sunday dinners. Gather those you love and invite over those whom you’re trying to get to know, or who you know could use some company. Sunday dinners broaden one’s sense of family. They create bonds. They can unite generations. They build community. They promote love, and yes, they inspire wonder. (Send me photos from your Sunday dinners and we’ll share them in my Sunday Paper newsletter.)

I continued my Sunday dinners in August and I’m so glad that I did because, on one special evening, my cousin Christopher came over with his new girlfriend. We laughed, reminisced about our childhood growing up (which was insane), remarked how much we loved each other, and shared how grateful we were to have each other. We also spoke about how blessed we were that our kids were friends. I told him how proud I was of his work in the sobriety space and how many lives he had helped along the way. I’m so glad I had this dinner because just this week — when he was so looking forward to his life — Christopher suddenly had a massive heart attack and passed away. He was my age and his death has rocked me. He is my third close friend to die this year, and I wonder why.

I don’t know about you, but I have spent a lot of anxious time and energy over the years wondering why I am here and what it is that I’m supposed to really be doing. Am I supposed to be a journalist? Am I supposed to be an activist? Am I supposed to run for office? Am I supposed to cure Alzheimer’s? Am I? Am I? Am I?

Today, I hope you’ll imagine your life 10-15 years down the road. What will allow you to feel the way you want to feel? What will bring you relief? What will let you breathe in deeply and know that you lived your own meaningful life and that you allowed others to do the same? Imagine someone saying about you, “He/she helped me feel loved and see the world through God’s eyes.”

When you look back, I doubt you’ll count how many likes you received on social media. Instead, I bet you’ll recount all the people you touched, as well as those who touched you. I bet you’ll reflect on how you honored your dreams, and who stood by you along the way.

So today, go ahead and take a small step towards your truth and let me know what you think. Better yet, let me know what you feel.

This essay first appeared in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, a free weekly newsletter offering news and views for a meaningful life. To sign up, click here.