Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Small Wonders

I remember reading this claim about Bowie that his life was a ‘rebuke to cynicism’ and isn’t that just the most beautiful thing?

I am certainly no stranger to the sarcasm, cynicism, bitterness, envy and general sense of despair that haunts us all. It is so easy to give in to, to be swept away into apathy and hopelessness, to just accept the ‘tales of necessity’, the widespread belief that ‘there is no alternative’. 

But there is an alternative, alternatives, plural, many possible worlds that we cannot see or fathom yet, but they are there, lingering on the horizon. In that light, I find that it might be my finest purpose in life to resist the tales of necessity, and to hold on to and cultivate that which brings joy and hope, even and particularly in the small.

As a rule of thumb, the less I can think about myself, my own needs and entirely unimportant achievements, or that obnoxious idea of a career, and the more I can appreciate the enchanted moments and small wonders (or little wonders, if we were to maintain the connection to Bowie) of everyday life, the better off I am. I’m at my best, in every way, whenever I manage to just be, to rest in the gratefulness of being alive. To be here now is enough. If I can just linger and patiently let something grow, emerging unpredictably from the encounter, beyond my control, if I can trust that moment, I am on a good path.

This goes for everything I do. my work, yes, absolutely, but also just life in general.

The more I can allow myself to be enchanted by everything I encounter, the better. These moments are everywhere and all it takes is attuning yourself to them, slowing down, being present, rejecting the incessant claims that we have to move fast, be productive, achieve things, triumph. It calls, perhaps, instead for what Anna Tsing has called ‘the arts of noticing’, paying attention to that which falls outside the scope of neoliberal capitalism, that which may seem insignificant, unproductive, inefficient.

The first flower in the spring, the rays of sun shining through bright green leaves on the beech trees, the duck taking flight, the falcon circling above, the hare hiding in the snow, the deer eating apples in the garden.

Yes, nature has a certain capacity for evoking wonder, but wonders are everywhere. Take the Danish band Efterklang, as they were playing with sounds in an old russian mining station or when Fiona Apple lets her dogs sing along on ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters‘.

Or my colleague talking with great passion about a very specific pinball machine, or another colleague who spontaneously turned a dull meeting room into an obstacle course (just to mention two examples that actually happened to me recently). 

Even my own hands can do this from time to time. Whenever the meeting between materials, especially wood, tools and my hands somehow manage to create something that can live with me for a while.

Or the beautiful simplicity of blowing bubbles.

These experiences of wonder and enchantment make me grateful for the experience of being alive and in turn it cultivates a deep desire to meet the world with an attitude of generosity and love. Jane Bennett has put it rather beautifully when she argued:

“If popular psychological wisdom has it that you have to love yourself before you can love another, my story suggests that you have to love life before you can care about anything. The wager is that, to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others”

Jane Bennett

These are not moments we can exploit for personal gain, we cannot squeeze every last drop of life out of them to secure our ‘return on investment’. All we can do is to keep our eyes open and our senses awake, we can wander the earth, and we can try to notice and appreciate what we encounter on our journeys. We can practice our capacity for wonder, maybe we can improve it, become better at it, but it can never be guaranteed.

For so many of us, inspiring wonder and cultivating enchantment may be the most consequential contribution we can hope to make with our limited time, whether ‘we’ are artists, designers, play practitioners, researchers, teachers or something else entirely. Maybe conveying a sense of wonder and the ‘arts of noticing’ (Tsing, 2015) should also be considered one of the finest, kindest and most worthwhile aims of education? What if education could be released from the stranglehold of learning goals, accountability and neoliberal governance, to instead be first and foremost an arena for cultivating wonder and enchantment? 

Hannah Arendt was talking specifically about education when she argued that :

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.

Hannah Arendt

With Bennett and Arendt, I believe that wonder and enchantment is a way to love – and fall back in love – with the world, and with our very existence.

I have a feeling this is also why I love play so much: it is a mode of existence that is particularly conducive for creating and appreciating wonder. When we are playing, we are both more open to the notion of magic and enchantment, allowing ourself to be seduced and carried away by the experience. 

One of my (many) favorite artists, Nick Cave, has some good advice, shared on his ‘Red Hand Files’ in a response to a 13-year old fan:

“Fill yourself with the beautiful stuff of the world. Have fun. Get amazed. Get astonished. Get awed on a regular basis, so that getting awed is habitual and becomes a state of being () Absorb into yourself the world’s full richness and goodness and fun and genius, so that when someone tells you it’s not worth fighting for, you will stick up for it, protect it, run to its defence, because it is your world theyre talking about, then watch that world continue to pour itself into you in gratitude.”

Nick Cave


One response to “Small Wonders”

  1. […] (and of course I do that from time to time, however much I try to avoid it) I disappoint myself. As I wrote recently, ‘the less I can think about myself, my own needs and entirely unimportant achievements, or […]

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