For seven years, I wore white shirts, sat behind desks, burned through four jobs, and was headed nowhere. So I took my problems to a therapist who listened for a few sessions then summarized me in words I still remember some 42 years later. “You need to put your hands around what you have done each day.” Then came the choice: “Your job doesn’t allow that, so to keep your job, you will have to change who you are. Otherwise you will have to choose a different job.” Easiest decision I ever made in my life.
I changed jobs.
I dig holes and put plants in them, buy 2x4s and drywall and build rooms, design and install custom furniture. I create stuff, objects I can put my hands around at the end of each day. Product, not process. Something solid, not ephemeral.
We live in a world of things we can touch. Things with substance. They bind us to our everyday reality. On a macro scale, we have our planet, sun and moon. Really big stuff. In the oceans, we have Blue whales that are 80 feet long and weigh 300,000 pounds; In the Sequoia National Forest, the General Sherman redwood tree stands 275 feet tall and is 36 feet wide at its base; in Egypt there’s the great pyramid of Khufu — 755 feet wide along each side of the base, 480 feet high, and built with 6 million tons of stone. Animal, vegetable, mineral. Solid objects all.
On a daily basis, we have our homes, our cars, our morning coffee cups, the screens on which you are reading this essay, or the paper you are holding in your hand. Our hands wrap easily around these solid objects.
Our hands are solid objects too. Each hand and wrist contains 27 bones, 34 muscles, and 100 tendons and ligaments. Complicated. Effective. Solid. Right? So one day I got curious about the makeup of solid things; the kind of “curious” that kills cats and inspires writers. We all know, stored away in the basement boxes of our minds, that all objects are made up of atoms, nature’s Lego set — 118 different shapes and colors from which we make everything else.
Let’s look at three of those Lego-atoms. Hydrogen is the most common, oxygen is necessary for life, and we are all carbon-based organisms. When we combine two atoms of hydrogen with one atom of oxygen (H2O), we get water. We carbon-based organisms cannot survive without oxygen and water. So this is good. But we will also not survive if we continue to combine one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen (CO2), creating more and more greenhouse gas. So this is bad. On a lighter note, our jewelry uses atoms of gold and silver; our phone batteries use atoms of lithium. (See how much fun this is? Who knew?)
Here’s where the original curiosity goes off the rails. If you remember your basic — and I do mean basic — chemistry, every atom has a nucleus of one or more protons and one or more neutrons. Orbiting around this nucleus are one or more electrons — just like planets orbiting around the sun. Now there’s an awful lot of empty space between our planet and the sun. What about between those orbiting electrons and their nucleus? So I did what any cat would do and googled “how much of an atom is empty space?”
99.9999999%, I repeat, 99.9999999% of an atom is empty space. And the electrons flying around in their orbits are not really solid objects but rather waves of energy. Make a fist, pound on a table, stomp your foot. Still feel solid? The Blue whale, the General Sherman redwood, the great pyramid? 99.99999% empty space. My house, my car, my coffee cup, and Oh no! My phone? Yep. Me? Everything: the earth, the moon, and every plastic lego — 99.9999999% empty space.
The wonder of it all is that we can do everything we do with only .0000001% of us being “stuff,” solid, something we can put our hands around. Complacent in what we think we see, we look right through the beautiful, amazing truth of everything around us.
We used to think that what separates us from any other creature in the animal kingdom is our ability to make and use tools. We now know animals do that. Or maybe our ability to learn and to solve problems, but animals can do that, too. Our ability to communicate? Both animals and plants do that. Our ability to care about others? Some animals do that too. No, what separates us from every other living organism is our capacity for wonder, and to imagine what else we might not know — and to go looking for it.
The .0000001% that is genuinely solid pays the bills, puts gas in our cars, orders coffee and plays with our phones. But after the bills, gas, coffee, and phone, we need to find just a little bit of time for wonder. Distinctly human, it’s rare, precious, and worth nurturing.
Look down at your hands. Right now. The ones you use to hold your coffee in the morning, to hold your phone all day, to shake in greeting others, to wave hello and goodbye. The hands that are 99.9999999% empty space, and tell me you are not in awe of what they can do. Welcome to a world filled with wonder where we can still discover amazing things that have been hiding in plain sight.
My therapist got it half right. It took me another 42 years to discover that everyone’s hands, no matter what they do or what they wrap around, are wonder — full.
Bill Sieck is a longtime Oak Park resident with a wondering mind.