Wonder + X: cosmic connection, difficult emotions, and real social change
Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost
Some time ago I was asked by Giovanni Stijnen, the director of Utrecht’s beautiful old cosmic observatory and museum, Sterrenwacht Sonnenborgh, to think along with a new initiative. Giovanni, his collaborator Douwe van der Werf and others are working on a project under the broader banner of the ‘New Planetary Narratives’ initiative. They are looking to connect the sense of being at home in the cosmos that is so naturally tied to visiting an observatory with a more earthly sense of ecological entanglement and care.
We discussed the possibilities and limitations of game design and of ‘immersive’ technologies like VR and AR next to more analogue, embodied approaches to helping people engage deeply with a sense of being connected to the planet and the cosmos. What might be possible in terms of personal transformation? How do we know it works? There is a shared interest among us in approaches based in cosmic connectedness that really make a clear, tangible difference for people, approaches that inspire action and change at higher levels.
I proposed that while cosmic wonder of the Carl Sagan flavor could be a powerful transformative force in itself, it would be even more powerful to combine this sense of wonder with other emotions. Especially if we wanted to resonate with more earthly concerns. Wonder and grief. Wonder and rage. Wonder and fear. Wonder and practicality. Wonder and power. Wonder + X, in short (though the X leaves kind of a weird taste at this specific internet moment).
The New Planetary Narratives project, at Sonnenborgh and beyond, is still in an early stage. I’m very curious to see where it will go. In the meantime, though, I thought my suggestion might be useful to consider more generally as a design principle of sorts.
Let’s talk about wonder first. It’s so easy to forget what a strange miracle it is to be alive in this universe. Being alive on this fragile pale blue dot somewhere in an unfathomably gigantic cosmos. The unlikely and strange fact of intelligent life. The mystery at the heart of your own consciousness. The complexity of the human organism against the endless stars. The mind-blowing diversity of life on earth. That we, little beings in this endless darkness, can love, create, connect, grow in this endless, miraculous, completely baffling complexity. We forget most of the time. I forget about it a lot, anyway. But the wonder is just a moment of consideration away. And when we can touch it, and touch the depths of our not-knowing and bafflement, everything could be transformed and the most mundane things can be understood to be deeply beautiful, deeply absurd, fantastic and mysterious.
Very nice. Feels good! Beautiful, trippy, connected. Deep experiences of wonder can, by themselves, be transformative. People have deep experiences of cosmic connection in many ways — through being in nature, being deeply in love and connected to others, through meditation, psychedelics, and so on. Or for no apparent reason at all, just lots of little thoughts and experiences coming together. And these can be life changing. When such a deep, transformative sense of wonder is connected to a sense of ecological consciousness and of being part of a larger universe, this can be powerful. A paper by fantastic sociologist Erika Summers-Effler discusses how a personal mystical sense of connectedness can be transformative in some unusual and powerful ways.
But it doesn’t necessarily prompt people to action. That’s where I think focusing explicitly on other emotions and other aspects of experience in combination with cultivating wonder could be very powerful.
Another paper by Erika Summers-Effler, one of my all time favorites, investigates emotionality and its role in the success and failure of social action. It discusses how the emotional energy for social action often starts with people giving each other the space and support for experiencing emotions that are not commonly accepted, like anger, grief, or forbidden types of joy. Making the space together to experience such emotions makes it possible to see that perhaps I’m not to blame for feeling these unaccepted things — that they are natural responses to things that are wrong with society. I might find out that my perpetual sadness is not a personal failing, but comes in large part because I just don’t feel any hope for the future because of the realities I’m confronted with every day. When I learn that other people feel similar emotions, together we might find the agency to start to take action and try to create change. Experiencing grief and sadness together as well as sharing sources of shame and fear can be powerful in this regard. Such emotions can, in turn, give space to unacknowledged anger. And anger is a powerful, mobilizing emotion that can pull us out of shame and despair.
But while anger, grief and anxiousness by themselves can be powerful motivators, they can also lead to burnout on the longer term. This is where a sense of cosmic and ecological wonder and connectedness, a sense of the sacredness of life and existence if you will, can be a great source of individual and collective renewal. Strong spiritual beliefs have formed the backbone of many successful social movements, and a sense of awe at our place in the cosmos and in life is spirituality in its most inclusive sense.
I think engaging wonder and anger, wonder and grief, wonder and fear together and directly would be very powerful as a design principle. This could be done simply by offering prompts and experiences that form the basis for deep conversations. For instance, a process could be focusing on sources of wonder, mystery and connectedness that people have experienced in life so far; then really dive into climate grief, frustration or rage, and fully and collectively feel and express this less accepted emotion. Fire up their entire beings — their imaginative capacities, their relational skills, and get their bodies and bodily expressions involved. And then engage consciously and explicitly with how wonder relates to anger. How do people experience these two in their every day life? And how does the experience or dialogue they are involved in now help them engage or connect with wonder and anger in new ways — including how one relates to the other?
I see a lot of potential in the combination of wonder + these more difficult core emotions and experiences. So to review, these would include:
Wonder and anger/rage
Wonder and sadness/grief
Wonder and powerlessness
Wonder and anxiety/fear
Wonder and hopelessness
Wonder and heartbrokenness
Wonder and shame
Wonder and depression/numbness
Wonder and hate
Wonder and self-hate/self-criticism
Wonder and disgust
Wonder and loneliness/disconnection
And as the figure indicates — the interest would be in the interaction between these elements — how they strengthen each other for transformative effects.
But I’m also curious about what happens when we mix wonder with other experiences and ideas. For instance, what a dialogue or shared experience around the following combinations would yield:
Wonder and power
Wonder and conflict
Wonder and the mundane/practicality
Wonder and care
Wonder and attraction/sensuality
Wonder and party politics
Wonder and ethics/law
Wonder and strategy
Wonder and uncertainty/risk
Wonder and history
Wonder and the media
Wonder and systems thinking
And so on. A simple idea, but one that a lot could perhaps be done with. I hope it’s useful. Let me know if it helps! I will hopefully be able to give an update on the New Planetary Narratives project in the future. I’m writing this blog on the road to Slovenia to play a show with my metal band Terzij de Horde, by the way. I’m sure it will be a good opportunity to mix up that cosmic consciousness with some fury and grief while the black metal rolls over the mountains.
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