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Jul 29 2013

The Latest Parenting Trend–Radical Amazement

By at 5:01 pm

cup with strawThe other day, kind of by accident, my 1-year-old figured out how to drink from a straw. He put his mouth on the tube attached to the cup in his hand and started sucking–recreationally, it seems. I don’t think he had any expectations that something interesting would happen. His face, as cold milk pooled into his mouth, registered shock, surprise, delight–and, dare I say it–wonder.

Watching kids learn how things work down here on Earth is, as every parent knows, hilarious, amazing, and even inspiring. Seeing kids’ excitement when they pet a puppy, see fireworks, eat ice cream (or a lemon slice), or just find a good stick on the sidewalk can be magical for a lot of reasons–including the fact that they remind us how to encounter the world fresh ourselves.

The 20th century rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel writes often about “radical amazement,” that sense of “wow” about the world, as the root of spirituality. It’s the kind of thing that people often experience in nature, for example, on the proverbial mountaintop. But not only–a lot of it is about bringing that sense of awe into the little things we often take for granted, or consider part of the background of our lives. This includes not only flowers on the side of the road, the taste of ice cream in our mouths, or how groovy it is to use a straw, but also things we generally don’t even think of as pleasures, like the warm soapy water on our hands as we wash dishes.

Obviously, radical amazement isn’t only for kids (though they do it really, really well). It’s about bringing that wonder, that wow-ness, to as much of the mundane as possible–to the dishwashing, to the gorgeousness of the tomato we’re about to slice, and, of course, the tushies and toes of the cuddly, sticky, demanding little monsters we so love.

But there’s something of a paradox about this for parents. In some ways, we’re already set up for enough unfair expectations piled on our heads. We’re not only supposed to only feed our children morally superior food and stimulate them according to the most cutting-edge psychological research, but now we also have to constantly find some sort of rapture in the drudgery as well? Parenting is hard enough–and, for most of us, it’s pretty much a win if we manage to get through the day in one piece and manage to not leave our children at the bus station or let them play with the knives. Not to mention that the many pressures on parents–economic, socio-cultural, psychological, and more–can add additional layers of frustration and distraction.

And yet. Sometimes one of my kids just does something that forces me to stop, and catch my breath, and scale back into the big picture of it all–whether it’s the baby figuring out how to climb onto the couch (God help us) or my often-grumpy 4-year-old suddenly getting a little bit huggy out of the blue. I try to find the wonder in it, to feel grateful that they’ve for whatever reason chosen to come down from their home planet to spend their childhoods with me.

When I’m able to tune into the Radical Amazement channel, it makes me a little bit nicer, softer, gentler, and more compassionate with my kids. And it helps me enjoy my life a lot more. I remember that the present moment has a lot that’s grand about it, when I’m able to plug into the love and the joy and the magic and the hallelujah about the small things, the mundane things. It’s so easy to forget when I’m trying to simultaneously prep dinner, check my smartphone for work messages, and keep one kid from drawing on the walls while the other one is screaming in my ear. Or when I’m cleaning up food thrown on the floor, changing yet another diaper, or even reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? for the 250,402nd time that night. If I can manage to get even a tiny amount of wow into the most drudgery of the drudge moments… well, that’s a good day.

Heschel writes, “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines….Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”

In some ways, being an exhausted parent of small kids makes it harder than usual to be in that zone–but in a lot of other ways, they help get me there way more than I would on my own, and teach me by their own example. This is a lot of my spiritual practice these days–trying, and trying again, to find that place, however elusive it may be. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go drink something out of a straw now.

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