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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Surprise versus astonishment

I read a great article by the anthropologist Tim Ingold in which he differentiated between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge, he said, is about facts that you can read and accumulate, whereas wisdom comes from experience. You might not be able to put it into words - you just know that this is the right way to go, for example. Wisdom does not encompass the assumption that you could know all there is to know: the world remains in ways mysterious and uncertain. What knowledge, in contrast, seeks, is to reach a point of certainty where you can predict with confidence.

Now, this leads to the distinction in my title. A scientist may be surprised by what he predicted not occurring. He is surprised because he thought he had certainty and the world proved him wrong. the wise are not surprised because they do not assume certainty: they accept complexity. But they are often astonished - by beauty, by grandeur, by how the truth of the world is made manifest by its unfolding.

Young children, like the wise, are more often astonished than surprised. Surprise registers a failure of control; astonishment acknowledges the inevitable mystery.

In my father's garden, I went to smell the lilac. I know what lilac smells like, but I could not tell you that it's like this or like that. It is like lilac and always astonishing in its lilac-ness. As I looked at the blossoms, I saw that the colour of each flower is far from uniform.

Each is unique in its veining of blue and its shading from paler at centre to darker at the edge of the petals. In astonishment, you can stare at a flower for long minutes, riding the waves of sensory delight and not get bored.

Back home, I sat in the sitting-room and heard the Blackbird sing in my garden at the back of the house. And, in response, a Blackbird out in front, somewhere across the road. We think that our territories divide the world... but my house and the road are the space across wish two males tell of their own territorial claims. I in my sitting-room am not the centre of their work. I am just part of their landscape.

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