Learning from G.K. Chesterton: The Importance of Respect and Wonder

            I have lately been dealing with an injury that has caused me to have to live with great pain and the accompanying powerful (and scary) medicines that come along with such events for some seven weeks now. I will shortly undergo surgery to correct the problem and with some luck, should be fine thereafter. The matter has occasioned multiple visits to physicians, my surgeon and the hospital as well as a Magnetic Resonance Image test to confirm the nature of my injury and my doctor’s diagnosis. Throughout what has become something of an ordeal, I have been struck afresh by how such instances seem to make one more sensitive to the everyday, and despite the pain, more grateful for it. This perception is hardly new and I do not mean here to repeat a call to “live in the moment,” but during this time I have been reading some of the huge literary output of G.K. Chesterton, the legendary critic, author of some 80 books and 4,000 essays and much more. Chesterton was also famously the nemesis of George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats, among many others. He challenged these two literary lions in particular concerning their vigorous support for eugenics and much else, and did so without ever becoming an enemy of either. He enjoyed the rare gift as a controversialist of being able to separate the person from the views they expressed.

            Chesterton was considered a giant of letters in his time (he died in 1936) and was celebrated as such by T.S. Eliot among many others, but until recently, except for his Father Brown stories and one or two books of apologetics, modern authors and readers have neglected him. That has surely changed with recent publication of two serious biographies, one by Ian Ker, a noted Oxford University theologian, and published by that university’s press last year. It seems this legendary and literally gargantuan figure has again come into fashion for the genius he was.

            The more I read by and of Chesterton, the more struck I am by his apparent capacity to live each day with a sort of respectful wonder. He could see the ordinary through the eyes of one experiencing it for the first time and remark anew at just how fresh and amazing the quotidian can be. One may argue this was a gift unique to Chesterton, and perhaps to a few other writers and artists, especially poets, one might name. But I think the point is larger than one man or woman’s talents or perspective. It represents a way of looking at the world that our culture may be in danger of losing as we rush to privatize and commodify all we can and to do so as fast as we might. In so doing, we not only lose the capacity to “see the sunset,” but also develop a way of knowing that literally instrumentalizes all we encounter around the question of what it or they can do for us. I was reminded of this, and Chesterton’s deep insight in recoiling against just such an imaginary as a habit of mind and heart, at the hospital earlier this week.

            I had to go to the medical center for the usual range of blood work and clinical tests and to complete the typical array of insurance and health history forms ahead of my forthcoming surgery. As I arrived at the first office, my initial stop among several scheduled, I encountered an elderly African-American gentleman in a wheelchair, who literally filled the door and appeared confused. I asked if I might assist and he responded with a nod and rapid explanation and so I pushed him into the waiting room. There followed something of a comedic routine as the receptionist sought to assist, and typically (and sadly) of individuals who encounter those in a wheelchair, she began to ask questions of me rather than of the patient, whom I did not know. Nonetheless, I did my best to begin to explain the circumstances as best I could when, thankfully, the gentleman’s wife arrived to “take over,” indicating she had been parking the family car.

            A brief exchange followed, during which it was determined the couple were in the wrong place as the gentleman was to undergo surgery that day and needed to report for that elsewhere. All well and good, one might say, but both the man and his wife could not tell me often enough or deeply enough how grateful they were for what I had considered a minor courtesy. They were struck that it was much more and, as I reflected, it occurred to me that it might be so viewed. From their perspective, I had acknowledged them as individuals, rather than ignoring their circumstance or situation as none of my concern. In my way, I was living/perceiving as Chesterton might have admonished all to do and enjoying immensely an opportunity to meet a new person and to relish what, in this case, that very brief, interlude, might bring.

            What struck me was how much such a simple acknowledgement and openness meant to this elderly couple. This otherwise commonplace event seemed, on reflection, to have obvious portent for a polity characterized more and more by citizens living lives of self-absorption and tolerating, if not practicing, a politics of harsh catcalling, churlish and deliberately misleading rhetoric and disrespectful animosity. I was reminded by this otherwise minor episode of the deep value of Chesterton’s call for a respectful way of approaching the world and for the wonder daily life can provide.