Excursions: The Merits of Feeling Awe

One of the reasons I love to travel in general, that is, leave the place I live and go somewhere else for a bit, is because I am quite easily moved by the diversity of life and scenery out in the world. I liken this feeling to the concept of awe, and I don’t think people feel that way often enough. To me, awe is the feeling of smallness or an immediate awareness of the vastness of the world and the diversity of experiences that are not your own. Close parallels would be the feeling of smallness as one stares into the sky, or the feeling of wholeness you feel when the sun hits you (or that burning sensation on your skin as you realize that despite being millions of miles away, you can feel the warmth of the sun).

I feel like this is a feeling many creatures get, just like how dogs and chimps get flabbergasted by magic tricks.

The feeling of awe is like magic, and it makes you appreciate everything around you in ways that you didn’t before.

As I said before, I feel this often. I am from a rural town that’s relatively flat. I’ve seen a lot of greens, reds, oranges, and browns in my life, and as a result I’ve become a bit numb to their presence. I can still appreciate the wild colors of fall, spring, summer, and winter, but when I went out to the West side of America and saw a mountain range in the distance, I came to notice how much brown there was around me, and suddenly brown didn’t look the same to me anymore. The absence of greenery was interesting to me, and every time I stepped outside and saw the Spring Mountains of Nevada, I came to not only appreciate the flatness of home, but also the marvel that is a mountain range.

It’s silly, I know, but that’s awe to me.

What’s awe to the dictionary, you ask? Let’s see:

According to Google, awe as a noun is

a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder

The word awe comes from the Old Norse word agi, which became the Old English ege, meaning dread or terror. This leads to the current conception of awe as relating to a feeling of wonder, although, less joyous.

I think that’s pretty fitting. Because awe is not always about joy (the association with good things only came about in the 1960s thanks to counter-culture surfers in California). Things that are awe-inspiring are not always cute and cuddly, but sometimes frightening and terrific (which shares a root word with terror). The awe I feel from a summer thunderstorm is at once a wonder of the marvel of nature, and also a fear of the danger it poses should I decide to face it.

Another feeling of awe comes from being in a city in the middle of rush hour, and watching people come and go in an orderly and disorderly fashion.

These powerful moments of fear and smallness I feel are integral to the human experience, and it should be felt every now and then.

Lately, however, there’s been a discourse on awe and whether or not it is a product of privilege.  The Atlantic posted an article last September about this, with writer Michelle Nijhuis noting that awe’s links to terror, both the mental and physical responses to it, can be closer depending on who you ask. Awe’s link to fear is a result of them being very similar emotions, the smallness and humility received with awe is a product of that. In other words, the awe I feel looking at the ocean is not the same kind of awe that someone who has had to cross that ocean to survive might experience – similar awe, different feelings.

This being said, why is awe something we should seek? In that same article, a quote from Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner explains one of the positive mental responses that arises from awe:

“What we’re finding is that brief doses of awe move us from a model of self-interest to really being engaged in the interests of others,” Keltner told a Bay Area audience in June. “The preliminary data are showing that it starts to break down this us-versus-them thinking.”

In order to feel awe, here are some things I suggest:

  • If you are from a rural area, go to the city. If you are from the city, go to a rural area. If you are from the suburbs, go to either.

I feel awe when I look at any building over 4 floors high, because it was such an uncommon sight where I’m from. I like to marvel at the engineering that created them, as well as the wonder that is a modern city.

At the same time, I have relatives and friends from large cities that visit my hometown and wonder how anything gets done when everything closes at 8.

Seeing cornstalks as tall as a full grown man, animals just going about their errands, and a night sky undeterred by light pollution may make you feel awe, but then you might return home and see the same patterns where you live. City squirrels and pigeons are equally wild and free as they go about their daily errands, and while the night sky may be hard to find, the way a city lights up at night is equally inspiring to me.

  • Go see some nature. Go outside.

This one’s a bit tricky, because the great outdoors isn’t for everybody…or is it? Truth is, there’s a ton of ways to experience nature that don’t involve camping or rock climbing. Plus, everybody has a “kind of nature” that they particularly enjoy. Sight-seeing is one, where you just go to a place and stare at it, people watch. Others like to experience nature and swim with the fish.

Others like to do a mix of both- I’m one of them. Me personally, I like the ocean. It’s a delightful mix of an immense amount of water that can destroy entire cities, while also being the source of one of the most calming sleep sounds. I can’t swim, so the pull of the ocean is a legitimate fear for me, but there’s also a great beauty in it. It instills a great deal of respect in me.

  • Ask small questions of the big things. 

This I’d argue is one of the most important things to do for your life in general, but for awe it’s pretty crucial too. These small questions are the simple, Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. If you’re spiritual or religious, you should be used to these sorts of questions and finding peace in the search for answers. If you’re like me and you’re not either of those things, the search for answers is just as interesting, because you’ll find answers in different sources. Looking up at the night sky, for example, a simple, “How did we get here?” is going to set off all sorts of questions. I’m into societies, myself, so looking at a city through a bus window makes my mind go all sorts of ways, thinking, “Why did we humans decide to organize ourselves this way? What purpose does it serve that we all follow the rules at an intersection? Why don’t we all just do what we want, instead of what we should do?”

It gets heady real quick, as you can see, and pondering these things is a simple way to get a little bit of awe in your daily life. Try it, while you’re surfing the web or looking on your commute to work, a simple How or Why can get you reading philosophy pages on Wikipedia.

So go forth and feel something, y’all. You don’t even have to move from where you are to do it, although I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. Besides, once you start asking these questions and feeling these feelings, you won’t want to stop, I swear.

How do you feel awe in your everyday?



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