The Constructive Contrarian Hidden Within

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The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; it is the one wild place in a world of rules and set tasks.

G.K. Chesterton

A few weeks ago, Sally shared the quotation above with me. Before I was even able to contemplate the wisdom of Chesterton’s thinking, I was struck by the beauty and cleverness of his words. The expression, “constructive contrarian,” came immediately into my mind. Chesterton’s unique gift was his almost mystical ability to come at his subjects from entirely unexpected angles, turning the words of his beloved English upside down, and around and around, into amazingly profound literary darts that rarely missed their target. He would have been a fearsomely effective opponent in any debate and I believe his pen was truly mightier than any sword.

The opening line of the paragraph ending in the quotation above read: “Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull.” Chesterton was blessed with a bottomless well of awe and wonder – a gift he wielded as artfully as his pen. He saw the magic in the mundane; the mystery in the ordinary. I envision him walking into the home of my grandchildren; his imagination would be inflamed with the wild adventures within. No tame domesticity here, this is the land of dragons, princesses, and possibility.

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

G.K. Chesterton

Staying with children for a moment more. Chesterton’s contrarian approach turns our notions of safety and protection on their head. For him, children aren’t naive or ignorant, he knows they see, feel, and intuit far more than we imagine. Those of us who have lost our ability to see with childlike wonder, struggle to understand the depths of those spongy little minds. Chesterton seemed able to remember the child’s boundless curiosity and capacity to experience the world more fully than the adult. His counter-intuitive thinking reminds of those youthful realities long lost as our dragons become the structured fears of our grown-up world.

The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.

G.K. Chesterton

Amid the strictures and structures of that adult world lie all the things we lose along the way. Buried behind the must-haves, must-do’s, and all the mundane they comprise, lay the bones of lost wonders, lost dreams, and lost hopes. We get lost in the noise and forget. Priorities, deadlines, and commitments become their chains – important as they may be – shackling us to a numbing domesticity. Life crafts special scales for our eyes, blinding us to those loves that blend into that same melancholy background. Chesterton saw this, and rebelled against the slow death of surrender to it.

There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.

G.K. Chesterton

We live in an age of contrarians. The blamers and arguers. The accusers and dividers. Try as I might, I am unable to avoid completely the election-time attacks reminding me of how pathetic any of us are who might have the gall to run for elected office. One must conclude that all are corrupt, ill-willed, foolish, and unfit. Ours is the age destructive contrarianism. It tears and rends. Breaks and bends. I suppose Chesterton’s era wasn’t much different but it didn’t provide nearly the speed and volume of dissemination. However, he found a way to disagree constructively, making his points all the more subversive to the cultural trends.

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

G.K. Chesterton

What is it to be a constructive contrarian? It is reconsidering the inconveniences of our lives and seeing the adventures within. It is absorbing the slights and offenses, the indignities heaped upon us, and reimagining them in a different context. Chesterton intuited that the difficulties of existence always hid some greater possibility; either in how they prepared us or in what lay hidden behind them. Perhaps it was his ability to retain his childlike wonder that allowed him to approach life this way. He seemed to see the veil of hardship pulled thin against the terra firma of hope and possibility.

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

G.K. Chesterton

When did we stop wondering? We’ve produced a generation of youth who don’t want to work. Listening to recent college graduates, now chin deep in their new careers, I’ve heard a litany of frustrations. Workload. Schedules. Having to go to an office. Pay. Taxes. Humanity. One might think that somewhere along the way we told them it would be easy, obvious, or pleasurable in every moment. Was it education? Was it curriculums? Was it youth sports or the proliferation of trophies? Maybe it was cell phones or too much comfort. Amid the entertainment, selfies, and tik-tok videos, the awe and wonder was lost. The adventure of daily living turned into the mundane of a new kind of domesticity.

It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.

G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton saw it. He saw the whittling away of the center and the looming loss of awe and wonder at this world and beyond. His was a contrarian optimism that refused to give way to the modernist materialism burdening his society and rampant today. We always see the fix, right? If he would change or she would change or the system would change or the world would change, then all would be well. Why is it so difficult to see that we must change? The log in our own eye seems a blinding problem.

Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.

G.K. Chesterton

There is a constructive contrarian in each of us. That part of us that rails against the injustice, the ignorance, the sadness, the bizarre, and the unreasonable. The piece that sees solutions and intuits the problem – even if it is hard to admit. Sometimes, we feel the awe and wonder, perhaps even touching it for a moment: in the cry of a baby, the laugh of a child, the glow of a sunset, the joy of a kiss, or the shadow of a mountain. For that moment, all seems right and the horizon holds endless possibility.

We hold an amazing capacity to reason, to probe and to understand the movements around us. Our nature is to want control of them so that we can direct them to our desired end. Perhaps that’s where we lost our awe and wonder, as they were thrown against the rocks of our own limitations. Maybe the child’s wonder is born of humility, and unleashed in surrender to a faith that everything is going to be ok; despite the fact that he knows the dragons exist. That may be the most constructively contrarian thinking of all.

  • Mom & Dad

    Pealing back the layers of the onion again I see, and nicely mixed with GKC wisdom.
    Nice piece Phillip.

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