The Great Awe-Wakening
How often do we hear young people today exclaim “that’s awesome!” Or “I’m in awe?” Or in another context, how often do we continue (!) to hear military authorities characterize their bombing operations in the epic terms of “shock and awe?” A bit too often, I’m afraid. Yet the fact that “awe” — and its variants — are flooding our vocabulary is not an altogether menacing sign. Indeed it is perhaps a welcoming sign that beyond its casual usage, the fuller and deeper sensibility of “awe” is reemerging in our culture.
The sensibility of awe has undergone many incarnations in humanity’s history. In ancient times, for example, awe was viewed quite narrowly as the sense of being daunted or overcome, particularly by nature. The experience of being daunted, as Rudolf Otto put it in his classic study of religion, The Idea of the Holy, was the primal experience of creation, and the primal experience of creation, he went on, was the seedbed for religion. On the other hand, in more recent years, the sensibility of awe has either been neglected, as was the case during the industrial revolution and rise of science, or in our contemporary age, embraced mainly for its exalting qualities, such as its capacity to thrill.
The truth, however, is that awe is neither a paralyzing jolt nor a “feel good” boost but a profound and complex attitude. This attitude, for those fortunate enough to harbor it, embraces both apprehension and thrill, humility and the grandeur of creation. Hence when young people proclaim “awwwesome,” they often appear to glimpse but not necessarily embrace essential awe.
My awe-wakening began fifty-two years ago, when I was two and a half. After a long battle with chicken pox, compounded by pneumonia, my brother of seven collapsed on a hospital cot. With the collapse of my brother came the collapse of my world. Nothing remained the same — neither my innocence, nor my routines, nor my parents. The death was like a rent in the fabric of my early childhood security blanket. Into this tear rushed every demon imaginable — witches, Frankenstein monsters, and faceless killers. I especially feared the night, because this was the time when the void opened wide, and the most the sinister figure imaginable rushed in — the unknown.
So there I was, three years old and at the edge of a precipice. I was sinking but little did I realize then that I was also at the edge of a very exceptional awakening, a wonder, that primarily the wounded are blessed (or cursed!) to glimpse. Yet I felt nothing close to being blessed at that time. I felt horror, and tried desperately to block it out — or scream it away.
Over time, and with the help of some profoundly healing encounters, I realized that the answer lay not in my evasions, but in my questions; not in my withdrawals but in my discoveries. In this way, change and the unknown progressively became portals for me — openings for awareness. Among these openings was a jarring yet deepened sense of the temporariness of life, and the value of the moment in its wake; another was the discovery of my aloneness and the playful wonder that could arise from it, and another, finally, was the abrupt realization of life’s uncertainties, which could be intriguing as much if not more than stultifying. This latter sensibility was especially acute in my fascination for science fiction. I would spend many absorbing hours either creating or watching stories about distant lands, hidden worlds, or peculiar states of mind. I would be unnerved by these scenarios but also and equally enthralled. Books like A Wrinkle in Time and The Fall of the House of Usher, movies like The Wizard of OZ and Frankenstein, and TV shows like The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond, became my intimate companions. I could lie on my bedroom floor for perhaps hours, after a dramatic show, or even an intense sob, and make up characters, plays, and ideas for movies. I even made up a play movie studio, complete with “contract players,” scripts, drawings, and toy sets. As I got older, these forays morphed into short-story writing, poetry, and an impassioned interest in philosophy and psychology. In sum, I became fascinated by existence and the grand questions of existence — who are we, what are we, and what is being all about? I was not so much directed to these questions as supported to discover them, wrestle with their implications, and follow out their leads. This was not an easy road, to be sure — nor a linear one — but, ultimately, for me, it was a rewarding one. This was my road to awe.
The Nature and Power of Awe
In the many years between my early trauma and today, this is what I discovered about awe:
It is ever there, awaiting.
It is not about God but beyond God — an ever-flowing fount.
The awesomeness of life, of being, is inexhaustible. No matter what we lose, fear, or despise, it is there. It is there at our darkest hour, in trial as in devastation, in life as in death; because it is beyond life and death, trial and devastation.
It’s not that it is readily accessible, perceivable, or even conceivable; at our worst times, it is opaque.
However, it is available and that availability can be realized in an instant or a lifetime.
Awe, finally, is our humility and wonder before creation; and our astonishment before creation. It is neither the bliss-filled light nor the despair-riddled dark — but the MORE — whether bliss-filled or desperate.
Awe-wakening in the Everyday
In the spring of 2005, I conducted an investigation of the impact of awe on seven seasoned adults. I asked these participants how and in what ways awe had affected their lives. This sample consisted of Jim Hernandez, an ex-gang leader turned gang mediator and youth advocate; Michael Cooper, an ex-drug addict who became a yoga instructor and case worker; Candice Hershman, a psychotherapist who suffered from an emotionally abusive childhood; Fraser Pierson, a professor of psychology who grew up with a schizophrenic parent; E. Mark Stern, also a professor, who labored with stage three cancer; Charles Gompertz, an Episcopal priest who worked with troubled youth; and Jeff Schneider, a humorist who suffered from a banal suburban past.
Although each of the people in my sample struggled mightily with very trying life circumstances, they also as a whole refused the quick fixes that are so rampant today, whether those fixes pertained to consumer goods, drugs, or simplistic beliefs. In different ways at different periods, they each found their way to awe.
In the passages to follow, I will now relay my findings from this investigation, in the hope that others who struggle with similar circumstances may find value in them. The first finding is that each of the people interviewed found some inspiration, whether that be a person, a ritual, a form of nature, or a work of art, that sparked them on the their awe-based path.
The ex-gang leader Jim Hernandez, for example, began his road toward awe as an altar boy in his parents Catholic church. Although he felt oppressed by many of the demands of this position, he also found a solace in it. This solace focused on a bigger picture of life that opened up for him as an altar boy — such as the solemnity of his assistance to the priest, and the mystery evoked by the ceremonies. These experiences gave him a glimpse of an alternate universe — a sharply drawn contrast with his life on the street and the melancholy he experienced as a child.
The ex addict, Michael Cooper, began to connect with the awesomeness of life through his encounter with the deaths of his mother and brother, and later through spiritual practices. These experiences alerted him that there was so much more to life than his obsessive focus on appearances (he was a highly gifted gymnast at the time) and the drugs to keep them up.
Fraser Pierson, who grew up with a schizophrenic father, found awe through her solitary walks along the sea shore and later, through exhilarating experiences at sea. She reported spending hours, for example, marveling at sea otters or at exhilarating, sea-side storms.
Jeff Schneider, the humorist, discovered awe through great moments in his life, such as listening to Phil Woods play “Cheek to Cheek” live at the Showboat, and witnessing Reggie Jackson’s “tape-measure job” in the 1971 All-Star game at Tigers Stadium.
Mark Stern, who suffered from stage three cancer, found awe by recalling how the pain he caused a boy in his childhood transformed into his first realization of the preciousness of human life.
The psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl showed that just about any of us in any circumstance can experience awe. On a transport train between Nazi concentration camps, Frankl observed, in Man’s Search for Meaning:
If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up the hope of life and liberty. Despite this factor — or maybe because of it — we were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.
New Lenses for Perceiving Our Experiences
The final findings from my study supported Frankl’s observation — just about any moment can bring a sense of awe if we could but open to it and savor its poignancy. It’s as if the participants of the study found new lenses with which to perceive the most ordinary, and sometimes, heart-rending experiences. These lenses lifted them out of their narrow identifications with boredom or despair, and invited them into a vibrant new universe just beyond.
Here is a sampling of the lenses that they tried on:
The lens of transience. This lens gave participants an acute sense of the passing nature of time. As participants became aware of their fleeting nature, perceptions sharpened, conversations deepened, and moment-to-moment engagements vivified. Jim Hernandez learned to slow down and savor the meditative aspects of life through his church experience; Fraser Pierson learned to be present with the treasures of the sea; and Viktor Frankl discovered wonder from a fleeting image.
The lens of surprise. This lens enabled participants to embrace the evolving — and sometimes startling — nature of life. Charles Gompertz, the Episcopal priest in the study, allowed himself to be surprised every day when he chanted with others, tended to his daily chores, and built bridges with the interfaith community. Mark Stern allowed himself to be surprised by the dance-like rapport he experienced with his surgeon.
The lens of vastness. This lens attuned participants to the larger picture of their lives, whether that pertained to their physical surroundings or their journey through existence. Jeff Schneider experienced this when he read Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death and he suddenly understood the human struggle with greatness. For Candice Hershman, a survivor of an emotionally abusive childhood, this lens enabled her to connect with “the greatness of everything,” and with the amazement of both smallness and participation in that greatness.
The lens of Intricacy: This lens pertains to the subtle and hidden realms of human experience, such as that manifested in dreams, memory, and reverie. Jim Hernandez experienced this lens with his deep interest in Native American folklore. He shared this interest with many youth groups he worked with, including incarcerated gang members, and found them to be surprisingly receptive. He would take these groups on nature walks, for example, to explore indigenous sites; or he would lead them in drumming rituals, or in sacred shamanic practices. I experienced this lens on a pilgrimage to discover the background of my long deceased and highly secretive grandfather. After a journey to his city of origin, I unearthed fascinating records about his intriguing and even nefarious past.
The lens of sentiment. This lens opened participants to their capacity to be profoundly moved. Candice Hershman experienced this lens through her poetry, her walks with her contemplative father, and her children. Jeff Schneider experienced this lens with his “list” of awe-inspiring sporting events, concerts, books, and films.
Let me ask you something: What if I told you that you are about to embark on a great adventure – that you are about to be given all the proper equipment for this adventure — food, shelter, clothing.
And what if I told you further, that you will meet a wide array of beings — both human and nonhuman — on this adventure, and that every day you will be able to discover something new.
And finally, what if I told you that you’d have about eight decades to fulfill this journey, and that following those roughly eighty years, you would embark on an even more fascinating and enigmatic trek…
Would you want to go?
Would you relish every moment of the opportunity, and gather up all your strength to participate?
I would say that yes, you probably would; and yet I would also say that based on 10,000 years of human history it is equally probable that you would turn your back on the idea, and exploit, devalue, or even kill to suppress it. So what will the answer be for the next 10,000 years, or even 10,000 minutes? How will you respond to the call? Robotics or awe?