These are the moments when a new passion is silently conceived and we are forever after entranced, says columnist David Brooks. And they can happen at any time.
When E. O. Wilson was seven, his parents announced they were getting a divorce. They sent him away over the summer to stay with a family he didn’t know in Paradise Beach, Florida. Every morning, Wilson would have breakfast with the family, then wander alone on the beach until lunch. After lunch, he’d head back to the water and wander until dinner.
The creatures he found cast a spell on him. He saw crabs and needlefish, toadfish and porpoises. One day he saw his first jellyfish. “The creature is astonishing. It existed outside my previous imagination,” he would write decades later. Another day he was sitting on a dock with his feet dangling, when a gigantic ray, much bigger than anything else he’d seen, glided silently under his feet. “I was thunderstruck. And immediately seized with a need to see this behemoth again, to capture it if I could and to examine it close up.”
To a child, everything looks bigger. “I estimate that when I was seven years old I saw animals at about twice the size I see them now,” Wilson later wrote. He was transfixed by these creatures but glimpsed something more — a hidden new world to venture into and explore. His family life was falling apart, but here he felt a curiosity and a sense of belonging, one that would last all his life. That summer, a naturalist was born.
Most days pass in an unmemorable flow, but, every once in a while, something delights you and you are forever after entranced.
“A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder,” Wilson observed decades later in Naturalist, his memoir. “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist … Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”
This was what you might call Wilson’s annunciation moment — the moment when something sparks an interest or casts a spell and arouses a desire that somehow prefigures much of what comes after in a life, both the delights and the challenges.
Most days pass in an unmemorable flow, but, every once in a while, a new passion is silently conceived. Something delights you, and you are forever after entranced by that fascinating thing. Wilson (watch his TED talk: Advice to a young scientist) found it at age seven and has spent the ensuing eight decades studying it, becoming one of the most prominent scientists in the world.
When you hear people talk about their annunciation moments, they often tell stories of something lost and something found. Wilson was losing his parental home and found in nature a home where he was always welcome. I know a man whose father drank too much, and the family was always desperately short of money. This man fell in love with shopkeeping and business and eventually made himself into a multibillionaire.
Writer Andrew Solomon (watch his TED talk: How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are) heard about the Holocaust when he was a boy and thought about how awful it was that the European Jews had nowhere to go when trouble came. “I decided that I would always have someplace to go,” he declared in one book talk, and so was born a life of travel and travel writing. As my friend April Lawson puts it, we were all missing something as children, and as adults we’re willing to put up with a lot to get it.
I have a son who at five glimpsed the beauty of a baseball field and the players — baseball became how he processed the world.
The other interesting thing about annunciation moments is how aesthetic they are. Often, they happen when a child finds something that seems sublime. They are going about their life, and then suddenly beauty strikes. A sight or experience renders them dumb with wonder — a stingray gliding beneath one’s feet.
A person entranced by wonder is pulled out of the normal voice-in-your-head self-absorption and awed by something greater than herself. There’s a feeling of radical openness, curiosity and reverence. There’s an instant freshness of perception, a desire to approach and affiliate.
I have a son who as a five-year-old glimpsed the beauty of a baseball field and the players on it — before long, he was obsessed and entranced by baseball. Baseball became how he processed the world, how he organized geography and learned math. Baseball became the language we used to speak to each other.
My daughter, at about the same age, found herself at home around hockey rinks, and teaches hockey to this day. My other son found beauty in philosophy at a very early age. While the rest of the world is a vast, buzzing confusion, this is the realm we feel we can master and understand. “Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home,” writer John O’Donohue writes.
Annunciation moments don’t just happen in childhood. People have them, or have them again, at age 30 or 50 or 80.
One day, when he was four or five, Albert Einstein was home sick. His father brought him a compass. The sight of it, the magnetic needle swinging about under the influence of a hidden force field, made him tremble. “I can still remember — at least I believe I can remember — that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things,” he later wrote. He became obsessed with hidden forces, magnetic fields, gravity, inertia, acceleration.
As one biographer put it, “Music, Nature and God became intermingled in him in a complex of feeling, a moral unity, the trace of which never vanished.” That metaphysical curiosity drove him his entire life. “Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneering work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue,” Einstein wrote. “The scientist’s religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law.”
I am no Wilson or Einstein, but I also had my annunciation moment at age seven. I was reading a book about Paddington Bear and realized (or at least think I realized) that I wanted to be a writer. It’s easy now in retrospect to see how all the pieces fit together. My parents were academics and valued books and writing. My grandfather was a beautiful letter writer who dreamed of getting his letters published in The New York Times. As the Paddington story opens, he has traveled from Peru to London. He is alone at a train station until a loving family takes him in and cares for him. I guess as little children we all, at some level, feel that we are alone and need a family to take us in.
In the 50 years since I read that opening scene of A Bear Called Paddington, there probably haven’t been 200 days when I didn’t write something or prepare to write something. Recently I bought a Fitbit. It kept telling me I was falling asleep between eight and eleven in the morning. But I wasn’t asleep; I was writing. Apparently writing is the time when my heartbeat is truly at rest; when I feel right with myself.
Often, we’re not aware of our annunciation moments except in retrospect. You look back and realize, “Okay, that’s when this all started.”
Annunciation moments don’t just happen in childhood. People have them, or have them again, at age 30 or 50 or 80. But often when they happen in adulthood, they can still be traced back to some ancient seed that first blossomed when we were young.
The tricky part of an annunciation moment is not having it — but realizing you’re having it. Often, we’re not aware of our annunciation moments except in retrospect. You look back and realize, “Okay, that’s when this all started … That was the freakishly unlikely circumstance that set things off on this wonderful course.”
The best thing about an annunciation moment is that it gives you an early hint of where your purpose lies. The next best thing is it rules out a bunch of other things. “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him,” novelist Walker Percy observes.
Ed Wilson was walking one day, when he came across lion ants swarming out of their nest. Here was another hidden and entrancing world.
Ed Wilson’s annunciation moment involved an additional step, which was also, in the long run, a stroke of fortune. One day that summer he was fishing. He caught a pinfish but got careless when yanking it. It flopped in his face, and one of its spines pierced the pupil of his right eye. The pain was excruciating but Wilson didn’t want to stop fishing, so he stayed out there all day. That night he told the family what had happened, but by then the pain had dulled and they didn’t take him to a doctor. His eye clouded over months later, and after a botched procedure, he lost sight in that eye altogether.
Wilson was going to be a naturalist, but he couldn’t study something like birds, which require stereoscopy to see properly. He was going to have to study something small, something he could pick up and bring close for inspection. That same year, he happened to be walking down Palafox Street in Pensacola, Florida, when he came across lion ants swarming out of their nest. He stood there with the same feeling he’d had by the ocean. Here was another hidden and entrancing world. He would study ants and go on to greatness.
Forty years later, Wilson happened to be on the same street in Pensacola. He saw the descendants of those first ants scurrying about. Fascinated, he got down on his hands and knees, peering at them. A passerby was alarmed to see a grown man crawling on the sidewalk and asked if he needed help. But Wilson was just returning to his childhood love and continuing his lifelong call.
Excerpted from the new book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks, published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
David Brooks is speaking at TED2019; his talk will be posted here as soon as it as available.