What's Happened To Wonder? The Bliss Of Confusion

Read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic piece "How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination"

As children, we are allowed to be confused, lost, and full of wonder. As adults in the age of Google, we are expected to project confidence, knowledge and understanding. Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic, talks about how learning a foreign language reignited his imagination.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

Once - writes Ta-Nehisi Coates for the Atlantic - imagination was crucial to me. As children, he argues, we are expected and we're allowed to be confused and lost and full of wonder. But as adults in the age of Google, we are expected to project confidence and understanding, and we sometimes avoid situations where we don't know the answers, and, therefore, we get fewer opportunities to use our imaginations. In just a minute, we'll hear how Ta-Nehisi Coates rebooted his imagination by learning French. But we also want to hear you stories. Tell us about a time when you had to get lost or feel stupid or abandon your comfort zone. What happened? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the senior editor for The Atlantic. His piece "How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination" appears in the June issue of the magazine. He joins us now via Skype from his home in New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Hi. Thanks for having me.

DONVAN: It's a pleasure. And you write in your piece, Ta-Nehisi: I started studying French in the summer of 2011, in the throes of a mid-30s crisis. I wanted to be young again. Let's start there. What did studying French have to do with feeling young again?

COATES: Well, actually, I should correct the record, here. I most certainly have not learned a foreign language. In fact, many people have maintained that you can't actually fully ever learn, when they were always learning. But mine particularly is still quite bad.

(LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: Thanks for fessing up.

COATES: Yeah. Because I don't want anybody to put me on the spot here, one of your callers call and they start speaking French, you know.

DONVAN: This is about the process and the journey more than about the product and (unintelligible). OK.

COATES: Yes. Yes. Yes, yes. So in 2011 - you know, and not just in terms of learning a foreign language, but, in general, I think one of the things we get away from as we age is this sense of wonder. When you're a child - at least when I was a child - you know, wonder was essential to survival. We had questions about the world, and imagination is one way in which, you know, we answer those questions.

And one of the things I was confronted with when I went to study French immediately was the fact of entire worlds that you just could not comprehend. I mean, speech is so elemental to how we communicate. And I found my wonder, my imagination being exercised in that space, often just to understand what people were saying and try to imagine what folks were saying.

(LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: I want to pin you down a little bit on what - I want you to define wonder for me, because everything you just described could be confusion, which is not the same thing, but might be related. So what do you mean by wonder?

COATES: That's a great point, and I'm not sure wonder and confusion are two different things. You know what it is? I think wonder is the acceptance of confusion and the enjoyment of it, you know, like the feeling that it's OK to be confused, that you're lost and kind of thrilling in that sort of feeling of being lost, of not understanding and reaching at various things.

And, you know, when you study a foreign language, that's the first thing. I mean, just the sheer not understanding is terrifying. It's like being reduced to being a two or three-year-old, except, you know, in my case, you're a 35, 36, 37-year-old dude. But your mind functions like a three-year-old. I strongly suspect that's why young people pick it up so much easier. They don't have any of that insecurity at all.

DONVAN: Well, what do you think is the evolutionary purpose of our losing the sense of wonder? In other words, if wonder is so wonderful, why, as adults, do we give it up?

COATES: Well, I don't know - I mean, it's obviously wonderful, but I don't know how great it is, because, again, the other part of that that it always comes with is confusion and fear. Those are parts of it. I think as children, if we didn't have to have it, we wouldn't have to have it. As adults, we become more in control of our actions. We decide where we're going to go, what we're going to see, who we're going to talk to, what we're going to talk to about. As a child, you know, it's a good thing to learn the language in which people are speaking around you. As an adult, once you've acquired that, why go any further? You don't have to.

DONVAN: But it's almost like saying that learning is the death of wonder. In other words, if you learned as a child to speak the language that your parents speak and you start to struggle through it, the more you learn, the less you have to wonder what they're talking about.

COATES: Well, you know what, I would say once you - the end of learning is probably the end of wonder, you know? If you make a decision to stop right there, you know, and not pick up anything else, then, yeah. You know, I think a big part of this is the willingness to look stupid. I mean, that's a really, really huge part of it, something again that children, you know, having not yet learned, really, really young children not yet learned, don't have to worry about. But with adults, we want to know what's going on. We want to know right now.

DONVAN: I remember seeing an interview with James Gandolfini who starred in "The Sopranos," talking about his early days of studying acting. And he was praising his teacher, and I can't remember her name, but he said, the things she taught me to be willing to do was to make a complete idiot of myself in front of everybody and to not care about it.

COATES: As far as I'm concerned, it is so essential to being any sort of real disciplined thinker, to being any kind of intellectual, a willingness to look stupid. I just think it's just absolutely, absolutely essential. And I'm not talking about, like, proud ignorance. You know, I'm not talking about going around and being, you know, happy to not know something but accepting that fact, accepting that and then, you know, moving forward.

DONVAN: You're almost talking about courage. I want to bring in Bridget(ph). She's in San Marcos, Texas. Hi, Bridget. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. And I assume you've been listening to what Ta-Nehisi has been talking about, so you want to jump in on this?

BRIDGET: Oh, I'm totally in agreement with him. And I think one of the words that I've recently learned to apply to my new endeavor is that it's humbling. I've always been a really talented person with language, and I learned to read so young. I learned - I think before I was three, I was reading pretty well. I'm just one of those weird kids. So I felt cheated I never - I don't remember what it was like to be excited about learning to read. And I learned Spanish and French when I was an FBI linguist, so I'm good with language.

But I recently wanted a new challenge just like your guest, and I, long story short, kind of ran across Braille. And I'm a sighted person. I have good vision with my contacts, and I'm learning Braille on my own. And there are lots of books available at libraries, and I am so humbled by the difficulty of it. Like I said, I'm a good language person. I'm a good reader, but this is a whole different part of the brain. And it is so - you feel - I don't want to say stupid, but you feel like, OK, how many times can I do this not...

DONVAN: I want to pick - Bridget, I want to pick up on the word you just threw in there a couple of times, humbling, and put that back to Ta-Nehisi and see if that's also what you're talking about.

COATES: Yeah. No, that's definitely what I'm talking about. I mean, when I went to France and then to Switzerland this spring, one of the things that people warned me about was how rude people would be in France because, you know, you don't speak French well. And, you know, I didn't find people to be especially rude. But I think a lot of that comes from the notion that learning should be predictable, that it should be easy, that it should be polite, that it should happen in this sort of way where everyone salutes you for the fact that you want to learn something. But the whole experience is humbling because you don't know. You really, really don't know. You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know what people are saying about you. You don't know how people are going to react to you.

DONVAN: Maybe it's a relief that you don't know.

COATES: Maybe so.

DONVAN: And maybe you can enjoy that. All right, Bridget. Thanks for your call. I want to go to Tony(ph) who's in Denver, Pennsylvania. Hi, Tony. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TONY: Hi. How are you doing?

DONVAN: We're good.

TONY: Pretty much the question is about when do you leave your comfort zone. I do it pretty much every week. I've recently gotten back in the long-haul driving, and every day is an adventure. You know, you have an address, you have a new set of directions. GPS can take you so far and somebody says you turned left, you should've turned right. It can get interesting out here. You know, you make a wrong turn with a truck, you know, you're 65, 70 feet long. She's not going to turn around and (unintelligible) with a car.

DONVAN: So I'm interested in the GPS piece of what you just said because, you know, in a sense, GPS is supposed to show you the answer. And it really, really...

COATES: I hate GPS. I hate GPS.

DONVAN: Why?

COATES: I like the atlas. I totally can hear what he's saying. I love the atlas. You know, I'm a huge, huge fan of, you know, trying to figure it out yourself, which way to go. And, you know, you might get lost. You might, you know? GPS has made it so predictable.

TONY: Exactly. GPS is way too predictable. There's way too many mistakes in them. Normally, a GPS will take you a certain set route, man. You get into the atlas and you look. You can make your own way.

DONVAN: Well, also with GPS, you never really need to look out the window.

TONY: Exactly.

DONVAN: You don't need to know the landmarks. Tony, really, really good point. We haven't thought about that at all. Thanks for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

TONY: Thank you.

DONVAN: Wendy(ph), you're in San Antonio, Texas, and you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

WENDY: Hi. Yeah, I, a couple decades ago actually, decided to try to learn how to ski, and having grown up in Miami, that wasn't really an option. And so when I took a vacation one time, I took a never-ever-before skiing class. And when I finished the class, I still had never skied because that just wasn't something apparently that I had a skill set for. And as an educator, it really changed how I looked at my students...

DONVAN: Really.

WENDY: ...because it's not about necessarily somebody not trying or that sort of thing. I was trying as hard as I could, and the teacher was being as patient as she could. But I think because I'm sort of a control freak, skiing is not a good sport for me.

(LAUGHTER)

WENDY: So it really affected how I taught.

DONVAN: Thanks for your call, Wendy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. I liked Wendy, Ta-Nehisi, that Wendy said, I'm a control freak. And you're talking about the opposite of control freakdom, aren't you?

COATES: Yeah. It was interesting. I kind of forgot what she's saying until she said that, then that kind of nailed it for me because again, I think a huge part of learning things that are outside of your comfort zone, outside of what you'd normally do is really, really letting go. You have to have your self-esteem somewhere else. It has to be built, you know, on something else. It can't really be built on the immediate success of whatever you're trying to learn because that just won't go well. I mean, you have to have something to go home.

For me, it was always - I could always come home and say I was a decent father, right? So no matter how bad I did at French or whatever, you know, I could pat my son on the head and that would make me feel better.

DONVAN: We have an email from Reed(ph), who writes: I travel by motorcycle on back roads, three to five weeks, four to seven miles - four to 7,000 miles as often as possible. I was buried up to my rear axle and mud with dust coming on five miles from nowhere in the Ozarks three weeks ago. Imagine all sorts of stuff while in safe areas on the road. So in the - I don't know...

COATES: That sounds great.

DONVAN: Yeah. But is it the risk he's talking - that attracts you or is it the I'm-going-to-just-let-whatever happens happen, which again...

COATES: No. I think it's what you just said: I think is I'm going to let whatever happen happens happens. I mean, you know, for me, you it was just the matter of, like, English sort of disappearing. And I'm sure there a lot of people who are familiar with this. But, you know, regrettably, I have not. I've been to Europe, London, once as a very, very young child. I just had never been in an environment. And I have to say the further I got away from Paris the more this was true, where it just, you know, English just went away.

You know, and as a writer, you know, as somebody who has written in English, who makes his, you know, living, writing in English, so obviously, that's extremely important for me. And to see that go away, and to have every one else around me, you know, sort of look at me, like, I didn't have what they had. I was - it didn't matter how quote, unquote, "smart I was," you know, or how I perceived myself as this, you know, whatever big-time writer for The Atlantic. No one cared. No one cared at all. You know, I was a 3-year-old walking around in a 37-year-old's body.

DONVAN: Let's go to Jen(ph) in Highland Park, Pennsylvania. Hi, Jen, You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JEN: Hi there. So I called because I did something that's kind of a classic story. Going west, my boyfriend and I, now husband, moved out there, put our savings together, sold everything we had, and were quite successful out there for three years, pounding the pavement, working really hard. And I came back here and opened my own business as a designer seamstress for gowns, dresses, women's wear. Every day, I am out of my comfort zone because every day I'm trying something new navigating through a gown to make fit someone like a glove, creating things that don't exist. And it's really good just to go with the flow and be challenged every day and it's amazing. I can't believe I actually, you know...

DONVAN: Congratulations to that.

JEN: If you can...

DONVAN: Yeah. Congratulations for that. But I have a question that comes off of what you said. You said a couple of times that you've been successful, which means that in the end, you kind of got to a place where you wanted to be. And what I want take to Ta-Nehisi is, you know, what if these wanderings and wonderings don't lead, you know, lead you into trouble and lead you into corners that you can't get out of. Is it as charming to you then or is that - do you just need to, like, let that be the risk, otherwise it's not going to authentic?

JEN: It is a risk. And I take that risk. Some of my clients have been very difficult, and I wondered, you know, how did I not see this coming before? But in the end, I work harder and I pushed through and I make it work.

DONVAN: All right.

JEN: (Unintelligible) says. You just - you make it work. And, yeah, it's worth the risk. It's, you know, why be boring? Why do the same thing all the time and you could really find out what you're made of.

DONVAN: Amen to that. Thanks, Jen, very much for your call. I want to go to Rachel(ph) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Hi, Rachel. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

RACHEL: Hi. I studied Latin for a decade, and then I decided, well, French is like Latin, so I'll go to France and I'll just learn it while I'm there

(LAUGHTER)

RACHEL: And I was - like Ta-Nehisi - I had, like, a three-year-old's vocabulary. I learned a lot about food, so I got really good at asking what I wanted. But I had to learn how to function just with this limited vocabulary and because I have severe anxiety. I have an anxiety disorder that I'm treated for, and so I actually, while going in France, I had to make this inner journey where I confronted some of my own anxieties and some of my own issues. And I found it extremely cathartic.

DONVAN: Really?

RACHEL: I mean that - yeah.

DONVAN: So - because I would think you would say it would be triply stressful for you.

RACHEL: Yes and no. It wasn't - this wasn't the first time that I had done something like this. And I realized, you know, like, when I moved out of my - when I moved away from my parents, my mom said to me, you know, there's going to be stuff that you're going to work out and I can't do that for you, and I'm - you're going to have to do it while I'm not around. And working out - being able to work out, you know, those things when I'm completely alone, and alone as in there's a language barrier, I can't go talk to anyone about it...

DONVAN: Right.

RACHEL: ...ended up being really healthy.

DONVAN: What do you think, Ta-Nehisi?

COATES: I totally agree with all that, and it is cathartic. And it also - I think, like, in - at least for me, when I am home, there is a kind of solutionism that, you know, I fall into. Well, I don't feel good today. I can easily go out and do something to fix that. I'm feeling bad about something right now. I can go out and fix that. When you have a language barrier, a lot of times there's nothing that can be done because you can only express so much to other people, and you may not even know that many people to even express it to.

And so it was just kind of accepting the world as it was. And I have to tell you, I was only gone for nine days. So, I mean, I can't even, you know, I'm going to see really soon what it's like. But I can't even imagine, you know, an elongated period like that. I mean, it just sounds incredible.

DONVAN: Ta-Nehisi, I want to thank you for joining us. And now we know that solutionism is the opposite of wonder. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic. His piece, "How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination," appears in the June issue of the magazine. He joined us today from his home in (unintelligible). Thanks for joining us. Tomorrow, Neal Conan returns for another round with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington.

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