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Nurturing a Sense of Wonder

Discover an unusual connection between Janis Nuckolls's research in Ecuador and the Utah State Prison.

Wonder, n. Rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience.

How often do you indulge in a daily dose of wonder? Professor Janis Nuckolls (Anthropological Linguistics) discussed this topic in her BYU devotional address, “Finding Wonder in Remote Places,” on August 2, 2022. Her remarks centered on finding ways to include wonder in our lives by nurturing. She shared her experiences of seeing wonder in two remote places: Amazonian Ecuador and the state prison system.

From Amazonian Ecuador

As a graduate student, Nuckolls spent time researching in a remote Quichua-speaking community in Amazonian Ecuador. Observing the day-to-day activities of the people whom she was working and living among, Nuckolls said, “My Quichua-speaking friends use language that seems designed to emphasize the wonder and awe of their surroundings.” She noted that the Quechua people use that vivid language to describe the nurturing they see occurring in the world.

Two women in Ecuador

Nuckolls’s appreciation for this sense of wonder inspired her to continue her research in Ecuador and lead study abroad programs there. In a Zoom interview with Nuckolls and one of her students, a Quechua woman related how the mother in a particular species of fish valiantly protects her young from predators by enclosing them in her mouth for safety. Nuckolls said, “My friend then exclaimed with wondrous admiration and surprise in Quichua . . . , ‘Look, even fish are such possessors of awareness!’”

To State Prisons

More recently, Nuckolls learned that we can experience wonder as we observe and learn from others’ compassionate actions. Nuckolls, along with one of her graduate students, taught a college-level linguistics class to individuals in the Utah State Prison. As she reflected on the circumstances of her incarcerated students, Nuckolls asked, “How do they make their lives meaningful and satisfying under such difficult conditions?” She found that these students do this by nurturing, even in their less-than-ideal environment.

One of the students, Mia, “had been involved in an animal training program at the prison and loved animals of all kinds,” Nuckolls said. Mia had found a way to keep her sense of wonder by connecting with something she loved. One day, Mia rescued a baby goose who was trapped in razor wire on the prison grounds. Nuckolls was amazed by Mia’s ability to show compassion for another creature even while Mia was in a challenging circumstance herself. Like the people in Amazonian Ecuador, expressing wonder through nurturing was a way for these incarcerated individuals to make their lives more meaningful.

To You and Me

Nuckolls invited the participants at the devotional to consider how we don’t need to live in remote places or have once-in-a-lifetime experiences to find wonder all around us; we can incorporate it into the things we do each day. As illustrated by the examples from Ecuador and the Utah State Prison, we can access the language of wonder simply by nurturing. By doing so, we create bonds with the world around us. “Allowing oneself to experience awe leads to an increased sense of one’s connections with others and one’s surroundings,” Nuckolls said. “Such experiences can also lessen stress, reduce the kind of self-critical thinking which leads to depression, and inspire greater humility, greater generosity, and more tolerance for uncertainty.” Certainly, expressing wonder helps us become better nurturers and, by extension, better disciples of Jesus Christ.

To watch, read, or listen to the full devotional address, click here.