What Overpasses and Oil Paintings have in Common

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder. -G.K. Chesterton

I remember the very first time I saw Van Gogh’s “Irises” – I mean the first time I really saw it. “Irises” is the type of piece you grow up being aware of: you see it projected on a slightly too dark screen in your fourth grade art assembly, you see it on computer screen savers, and you see it at the doctor’s office encased in a pale pink frame from the nineties. But being aware that something exists is not the same as really seeing it. The very first time I saw Van Gogh’s “Irises,” I was standing in the Getty museum in Los Angeles, and I stared at it for only a moment before my eyes wanted to wander. Suddenly, I felt self aware, disgusted at how quickly I disregarded something created by an artist that I loved. I looked at the piece again, looked at it so long that it almost made me uncomfortable. I slowly began to see.

It is funny how much of our lives we spend staring at the world without seeing it. We are so busy ignoring where we are, and most of us don’t even know why. The drive through, the airport, the bus station, the freeway – we pass through some of these places daily, all the while preoccupied with how much we would like to be someplace else. There must have been a time, probably when we were very young, when we stared at colossal freeway overpasses with our mouths hanging slightly open, and rightfully so.

Van Gogh’s “Irises” and concrete freeway overpasses might seem to have little in common, but the truth is, we’ve done to the colossal freeway overpasses the same thing we’ve done to Van Gogh. We have learned to ignore, and forgotten how to wonder. And its not entirely our fault, either: we live in a society that commodifies beautiful things in order to make a profit, a society that advertises, produces, and consumes aggressively. This leads to the overstimulation of our senses, making us blind and numb to truly beautiful moments. As the wonders we encounter increase, our wonder decreases. We’ve learned to ignore the beautiful because we’ve seen it a thousand times, or otherwise because we’ve grown suspicious that every beautiful thing might be selling us something.

The challenge for us, then, is to reclaim our sense of wonder, to think about how we see the world, to look at the giant overpasses that form negative space in the sky and the oil paintings that hang on quiet white walls with awe. Yes, I actually want you to be able to look at each freeway overpass you drive under with awe, and this is why: consumerism and commodification haven’t proven to make us more whole, but wonder might. The practice of commodification teaches us to reduce the worth of an item, or even a person, to its economic value. The practice of consumerism teaches us that we need the objects advertised to us in order to be happy. The practice of wonder, however, teaches us to become sensitive to the sacred, to be humbled by beauty. To wonder is to see as God sees. If we continue in the mindset of commodification, we are going to lose some really beautiful moments. If we don’t cultivate wonder, we will be overstimulated, yet bored, feeling as if we are missing something. If we don’t repair the way we see while we can, we could lose our ability to see at all.

So how do we recultivate wonder?

  1. You could start by looking at something you’ve stared at a million times. Sit in front of it for long enough that your eyes start to wander – that’s when you have a chance of actually seeing it.
  2. Intentionally go to the bus station, or airport, or to the slowest check out line during the 5 pm grocery rush hour. Don’t try to distract yourself from it. As you stand in line waiting to purchase your eggs and cheerios, pay attention to how wonderful it is to partake in the ritual of grocery shopping, and how unbelievable it is that there is a conveyor belt that moves your food from one place to another.
  3. Stop asking for success, for traffic to disappear, for things to run smoothly, and start asking for wonder. Ask for eyes to see. Jesus knew how to see, he was always causing wonder. He rose people from the dead and turned over tables and stuff. Prayer has been the best tool for me in realizing the miracle of overpasses and oil paintings again.

It is easy to overlook that which our society does not value, but through this recultivation of wonder, we find a greater realization of God’s presence in the world. In other words, the more we cultivate wonder, the easier experiencing wonder becomes- and the easier it is to see what is sacred, even in an overproduced old painting, or a freeway overpass.