Wonder—the most under-valued emotion for creating change?

Posted: 09/09/2020

Social change comes about for a range of reasons. It happens when people become enraged, emboldened, when they feel they have nothing left to lose, or when something happens that they can no longer ignore.

It also happens when they feel inspired or moved. Think Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ (1963) speech, Julia Gillard’s, ‘The Misogyny Speech’ (2012),  Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech (2014) or Greta Thunberg’s speech last year at the U.N.’s Climate Action summit (2019).

There are also forms of inspiration that not only motivate people to take action, but also invite them to imagine a better world and leave them feeling full of wonder.

Wonder is an emotion that we often don’t talk about. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes it as ‘the quality of exciting, amazed admiration; rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience’.

It is a feeling that uplifts and creates a spark. It is a recognition, at a deep level, that something is worthwhile, unique and valuable. Wonder can motivate people to want things to change, not by creating outrage and anger, but by inviting them to imagine that the world has the potential to be an inspiring and beautiful place.

 What is ‘disruptive wonder’?

A few years ago I came across the concept of ‘disruptive wonder’ and I had an ‘aha’ moment. It perfectly describes the feeling of being inspired to see the world from a different perspective and to notice new and hopefully possibilities.

The term ‘disruptive wonder’ was first used in 2011 by Kelli Anderson–she talks about it here in a Ted talk. Kelli is a graphic artist and proponent of ‘wonder’ as a unique motivator for creating change. She has worked on many projects but one of the most notable was in 2008 when, with artist Steve Lambert and the Yes Men (amongst others), Kelli and her collaborators created and distributed hundreds of thousands of counterfeit copies of the New York Times.

The counterfeit paper was set six months in the future in an alternate reality, where the most pressing social and political issues had been resolved (even the advertisements were redesigned). All you need to do is watch the footage as people start reading their counterfeit newspaper (in front of the NY Times building no less!) to see ‘disruptive wonder’ in action.

People literally stopped in their tracks (in the middle of crossing the road in one case), their mouths dropping open, as they smiled with awe and disbelief at the headlines: Iraq War Ends; Nation Sets Its Sights On Creating A Sane Economy–True Cost Tax, Salary Caps, Trust Busting Top List; Saudi Monarch Grants Women Right To Vote. It even included an advertisement (in IKEA style) selling a flat-packed personal windfarm.

As we watch the footage, we can see the readers’ dawning awareness that this can’t be real, but by that point, the idea has been embedded in their minds. The ‘future picture’ Kelli and her accomplices created became a ‘possible future’. They had planted a small seed of hope.

This simple act went viral and appeared in news programs all over the world.

Other examples of disruptive wonder

There are examples of disruptive wonder everywhere. Community art, flash mobs, yarn bombing, anything that elicits that sense of awe and disrupts our perception of reality, could be described as an act of disruptive wonder.

In Edenborough, Scotland, in 2011, there was a particularly beautiful example this kind of ‘disruptive creativity’ when someone anonymously left intricate and stunning paper sculptures all over the city to protest the closure of libraries. They began in the Scottish Poetry Library, leaving a tree carved from paper and mounted on a leather-bound book (which became known as the ‘poetree’), with a tag that read:

“It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree…We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books…a book is so much more than pages full of words…This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…a gesture (poetic maybe?)”

At the base of the tree was a paper egg, broken in half and lined with gold, with individual scattered words that when combined, made up a poem by Edwin Morgan called ‘A Trace of Wings’.

Ten more sculptures were found in locations across the city, all left anonymously and all made from repurposed books, including a gramophone and a coffin, an intricate scene of a cinema, a dragon hatching from an egg, tea and cake, a tyrannosaurus rex bursting from a book and a wren’s wing.

It was such a beautiful and simple idea and a powerful protest at the same time. And it inspired people to take positive and constructive action to preserve their local libraries.

How is disruptive wonder useful day-to-day?

While many of the examples above are larger scale projects, wonder can be a powerful tool for change in our everyday lives.

For Kelli Anderson, disruptive wonder is often something quite small and intimate. She describes it as:

“…creating absurdist/surreal work that disrupts our preconceived notions about the world through small, intimate experiences…In these very places of non-examination, the tiniest of subversions can open up small, alternate realities and become amplified into (modest) conversion experiences about our surroundings.”

In many ways, now is the perfect time to be thinking about how we can bring more wonder into our lives. The virus itself is a massive disruptor, leaving uncertainty, stress, anxiety and chaos in its wake. It has also created opportunities for reflection on what is important, what we value, what we want the world to look like after this is all over. As Jeffrey Davis says his article in Psychology Today, times of chaos and upheaval are the perfect time to focus on wonder. He suggests that times like these require us to be flexible, adaptable and creative and notes that ‘a call to wonder is about being more creative than reactive in this time of collective fertile confusion’.

COVID-19 has forced us, as human beings, to step back and take stock. For some of us, this has enabled us to retreat from the usual busyness and clutter of our lives and find the wonder and joy in small things. Perhaps it has unwittingly become a type of disruptive wonder?

How could I use the concept of wonder with clients or students?

Disruptive wonder is a process of encouraging people to consider life-affirming possible futures by disrupting their preconceived assumptions about the world. In terms of strengths-based solution-focused approaches to working with people, it is about inviting people to be playful and open when thinking about possible futures.

So often, when we are supporting people to move through a challenging time in their lives, it is serious business. What if, instead, we encouraged people to be creative and imaginative, exploring left-field and quirky possible futures? What if planning and goal-setting was fun and we encouraged people to imagine a range of possible outcomes or futures, some of them wild and wonder-ful? Supporting people to laugh, feel positive and imagine a more hopeful and empowering future for themselves can be an incredibly powerful call to action.

When working with students or clients around future planning and goals setting, try including a few of the following questions, just to see what happens:

  • Think of a time you felt really inspired. Where were you? What were you doing?
  • When have you experienced joy, happiness or wonder?
  • How did it feel in your body? What were you thinking?
  • When was the last time you were genuinely surprised (in a good way)?
  • Have you ever had a great big belly laugh?
  • What do you do for fun? What silly or quirky stuff do you enjoy doing when no one is watching?
  • Would you like more moments like these in your life? How could you make this happen?
  • If you had a superpower that could transform the world into a happier place, what would you do first?
  • What would you do differently if you could fly?
  • If you were the happiest person in the world, what would you day look like? What would you have for breakfast? Who would be there with you? What would you do first? Second?
  • Who supports you to feel like anything is possible?
  • What are some things you could do that would bring more wonder and lightness into your life?
  • Who inspires you? Who helps you see the world through new eyes?
  • If you woke up tomorrow and life felt magical and alive, what would have changed?
  • If you could do one fun thing right now, what would it be?

Creating a sense of wonder is an amazing way to motivate people to create change, on a small scale and also on a grand scale. Wonder invites people to see the world through fresh eyes. It also brings a playful irreverence and lightness, which are key ingredients for challenging entrenched ideas and inspiring people to change their picture of the future.

When do you feel wonder? Have you had any experiences of disruptive wonder? We’d love to hear from you.


Written by Sue King-Smith


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