Thinking About… Wonder
On a snow day last month, during a string of seemingly endless snow days, our family sought relief from cabin fever by going to the theater to watch the movie Wonder. Wonder tells the story of a boy named August (Auggie), born with a rare facial deformity, who, after being home-schooled by his mother, enters a mainstream middle school for the first time at the start of fifth grade. It is a movie that everyone should see, if only because the world would be a better place if they did. Since that snow day, I’ve been thinking about Wonder.
Wonder is a movie about simple kindnesses that come in many forms. Its particular power derives from the fact that these kindnesses are often extended and received by children. It shows (rather than teaches) that a person is made up of more than it seems on the surface, if only we have eyes to see. Auggie, it turns out, is far more than a boy with facial differences. He is not a “freak” (though some label him as such); he is “wonderfully and fearfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
Although every other member of my family was familiar with the story of Wonder because they had already read the book of the same name by R.J. Palacio, I watched blissfully unaware of what would happen next. So, I was surprised when the plot arc following August’s older sister featured a high school production of the classic American play, Our Town. Our Town, a Thorton Wilder drama which debuted in 1938, is set in the imaginary town of Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, and is considered one of the finest plays of the twentieth century. Aware of its reputation, I read Our Town this past summer while on my sabbatical.
Honestly, when I read Wilder’s short play I found it kind of slow and dated. I questioned whether tastes had changed over the last eighty years. Until I got to the end. The play’s final scene features a monologue from one of the lead characters, Emily, who has died but returns as a spirit to her twelfth birthday party. There, while watching the unsuspecting characters interact, she urges them to break out of the mundane routine of life and to look at her as if they really see her. She ends with the following observation, worth quoting at length:
Emily: I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.
Good-by! Good-by world. Good-by, Grovers Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking... and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths... and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No
The saints and poets, maybe--they do some.
Saints and Poets
What both Wonder and Our Town have in common (and why the movie intentionally quotes Wilder’s play) is a sensitivity to the wonder of human life. Indeed, it is our poets who often get there first, who provide a window into life as it ought to be seen.
In reading Our Town and in watching Wonder I couldn’t help but feel that Christians—that is, human beings shaped by both the Bible and the cross—ought to be the people who realize the wonder of life while they live it. We ought to be people who know that individuals are more than what they seem on the surface. To recognize and affirm that everyone is wonderfully and fearfully made. To look for and celebrate the image of God in all. To insist on seeing wonder everywhere and in everyone.
Sometimes it takes seeing such simple truth enacted by 12 year olds to get us to pay attention. To realize life while we live it.