Monday, April 18, 2011

What is Awe?

Awe is an emotion, although it is not often listed as such.  Awe is perhaps the rarest of all sensations.  It is like a radiant jewel in a handful of dull stones.  Awe is difficult to describe…But not impossible.   Webster’s does a decent enough job:

“Awe (ô)-n. An overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc. Produced by that which is grand, sublime, or extremely powerful or the the like.”

When was the last time you felt Awe?  Whereas most other emotions show up for work nearly every day of the week, Awe makes only the occasional cameo in most lives.  
Awe is not part of the typical routine.  It shatters our experiential template.  It shakes us free of the sticky monotony and awakes something deep in side of us.  In some way, each time Awe touches us, we have been changed forever.  And while Awe is whacking us in the head, it feels more good than bad, more pleasant than painful.  But Awe is not joy.  Awe is not bliss.  Awe is not love.  Awe mixes something terrible with something euphoric and profound.  Its like dark chocolate…bitter and sweet.  
Why would such an emotion exist?  Why are we preprogramed to experience beauty mixed with dread?  (I will come back to this question another time.  For now I will just let it linger.)  
Sometimes people experience Awe at the site of a grand vista…perhaps mountains stretching into the distance.  A sky full of shimmering stars?  The expanse of the thrashing ocean…  
But awe is not limited to sights of the rare or grand.  In the proper context, a drop of blood on your finger, a single word, or a solitary ant crawling on a blade of grass can launch your mind into the awe cascade.  Awe is the result of a realization: Reality is Grand.  But if Reality is Grand, then we are small.  Hence the fear.  Awe is overwhelming and it threatens to swallow everything.  Faced with the expanse we feel shaken loose from our mooring.  Robbed of the grounding comforts of familiarity―the universe shows us how small and tiny we are.   But for some reason part of us hungers for it.  Awe is a grand prize awaiting those most bold of perspective.   It alone can leave you forever enthralled:  tears running down your cheeks.  Jaw slackened.  Mind reeling.  Heart pounding in terrible ecstasy.

That is awe.  

And here is my thoroughly un-testable hypothesis:  Awe is the proper emotional reaction to experiencing reality.  And if the way you live your life hasn’t brought you past  the threshold of awe lately, well than you are just doing it wrong.  

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