The Dandelion and the Meaning of Life: G.K. Chesterton on How to Dig for the “Submerged Sunrise of Wonder”

Recovering the “forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence” alive in the back of our modernity-deadened minds.

The Dandelion and the Meaning of Life: G.K. Chesterton on How to Dig for the “Submerged Sunrise of Wonder”

There is a myth we live with, the myth of finding the meaning of life — as if meaning were an undiscovered law of physics. But unlike the laws of physics — which predate us and will postdate us and made us — meaning only exists in this brief interlude of consciousness between chaos and chaos, the interlude we call life. When you die — when these organized atoms that shimmer with fascination and feeling — disband into disorder to become unfeeling stardust once more, everything that filled your particular mind and its rosary of days with meaning will be gone too. From its particular vantage point, there will be no more meaning, for the point itself will have dissolved — there will only be other humans left, making meaning of their own lives, including any meaning they might make of the residue of yours.

These are the thoughts coursing through this temporary constellation of consciousness as I pause at the lush mid-June dandelion at the foot of the hill on my morning run — the dandelion, now a fiesta of green where a season ago the small sun of its bloom had been, then the ethereal orb of its seeds, now long dispersed; the dandelion, existing for no better reason than do I, than do you — and no worse — by the same laws of physics beyond meaning: these clauses of exquisite precision punctuated by chance.

NebularMaria Popova. This print is available to benefit The Nature Conservancy.

Despite the overwhelming cosmic odds, we still get to see this sky, these trees and these colors. We also experience these love we have. The recognition of this unbidden miracle of chance is the fundamental matter of meaning — the great awakening from the myth.

The great creative challenge in life is to find meaning and awaken to the miracles of existence.

All of this — the dandelion, the insistence on wonder as the sieve for meaning — reminded me of a some passages by G.K. Chesterton (May 29, 1874–June 14, 1936) — philosopher, impassioned early eugenics opponent, prolific author of several dozen books, several hundred poems and short stories, and several thousand essays — from The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton (public library).

G.K. Chesterton’s seventeen

A century after Baudelaire observed that “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will,” and a generation before Dylan Thomas insisted that “children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end,” Chesterton looks back on his early life and how it fomented the animating ethos of his later life as a literary artist and thinker:

It was amazing that childhood could be described as a world of wonders. It wasn’t just a land of miracles, it was an amazing world.

He also adds that despite the fact that pessimism is an absurd life-orientation and the incredible luck of being able to exist in a world where it seems overwhelmingly unlikely, he sees the absurdity.

No man* knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains… [there is]Undiscovered blaze, or sudden astonishment at one’s own existence. Art and Spirituality are the objects of our lives. [is]It is important to search out this hidden sunrise of wonder, so that an individual sitting in a seat might be able to suddenly grasp its significance. [is]Be happy and alive.

Once Chesterton found the art through which to channel this blaze of astonishment, he found his writing “full of a new and fiery resolution to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age.” He reflects:

The primary problem for me, certainly in order of time and largely in order of logic… was the problem of how men could be made to realise the wonder and splendour of being alive, in environments which their own daily criticism treated as dead-alive, and which their imagination had left for dead.

Dorothy Lathrop’s art, 1922. This print is also available as stationery cards.

So we arrive at the Dandelion:

I had from the first an almost violently vivid sense of those two dangers; the sense that the experience must not be spoilt by presumption or despair… I asked through what incarnations or prenatal purgatories I must have passed, to earn the reward of looking at a dandelion… [or a] sunflower or the sun… But there is a way of despising the dandelion which is not that of the dreary pessimist, but of the more offensive optimist. It can be done in various ways; one of which is saying, “You can get much better dandelions at Selfridge’s,” or “You can get much cheaper dandelions at Woolworth’s.” Another way is to observe with a casual drawl, “Of course nobody but Gamboli in Vienna really understands dandelions,” or saying that nobody would put up with the old-fashioned dandelion since the super-dandelion has been grown in the Frankfurt Palm Garden; or merely sneering at the stinginess of providing dandelions, when all the best hostesses give you an orchid for your buttonhole and a bouquet of rare exotics to take away with you. This is a way of undervaluing the thing in comparison. For it’s not familiarity, but comparison that breeds contempt. All such captious and naive comparisons ultimately stem from the bizarre and astounding heresy that dandelions are a human right; that humans can in extraordinary ways demand to have the entire garden of Paradise’s dandelions, that they owe nothing to them and that we need not feel any wonder that they were given to us; and that we should be grateful for being considered worthy of them.

Dandelion by Jackie Morris from The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane — a spell against the erasure of wonder from this world

Find some kindred thought in this epochs-wide meditation on the flower and the meaning of life, starring Emily Dickinson, Michael Pollan, and the Little Prince, then revisit Roar Like a Dandelion — poet Ruth Krauss’s lost serenade to wonder, found and turned into a modern picture-book by artist Sergio Ruzzier.

Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.

Subscribe to our newsletter

MarginalianGet a weekly, free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Related Posts