“For the creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” – Carl Sagan
Awe is a profound and transformative emotion. Reflecting on the points in my life where I have experienced awe, I recall being overcome with spiritual presence, blissful peace, overwhelming gratitude, quiet humility, and a love so abundant it welled up from my saturated heart, spilling down my cheeks as a coupled stream of tears. Awe-inspiring events manifest a connection so deep and so prolific that we remember these life-changing moments in time for our entire lives. My awe-inspiring events include the the birth of my children, the beauty and majesty of Glacier National Park, Montana, the vast, white, cold tundra of Alaska, and the dancing, green glow of the Northern Lights across a deep, dark, star-laden sky.
Merriam Webster defines awe as “an emotion variously combined with dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority, the sacred, or sublime.” The feeling of awe can be induced by nature, a person who exhibits dignity, wisdom, dedication, talent, or an act of selflessness or generosity, music, dance, or art. For some cultures, an awe-inspiring experience originates in fear, but for most of us, awe arises from joy and vastness, and transcends our understanding, often sparking our curiosity and moving us to explore the details of new information. As individuals, awe alters the way we understand the world. It can help us let go of the little things as we expand our beliefs on the capacity of human potential. It manifests a sense of humility and feelings of a smaller self as we are reminded of our interconnectedness to a larger sphere. We are drawn out of self-interest to the concerns of the social collective and whole community.
Craig Anderson, a University of California at Berkeley PhD candidate, investigated the emotion of awe through data collection from groups of veterans and under-served youth participating in rafting expeditions down the South Fork of the American River. Of the six positive emotions he tracked in participants, awe was the emotion most evoked through nature. His data supported awe as a means of increasing an overall sense of well-being and decreasing stress-related symptoms. In a second study conducted with undergraduate student, Anderson found that daily, small doses of awe improved life satisfaction.
Exposing ourselves to awe-inspiring experiences, especially those in nature, big or small, can lead us to focus on what is truly important. Our sense of self falls away as we stand in the presence of something bigger. In a world of instantaneous updates, illustrious stories on social media, and the immense changes to our climate and natural world, we struggle to find our place in the stars and connect to our true selves. We have the world at our fingertips, but many of us long for a more passionate, healing, engaged connection with others. I challenge you to find some awe daily. Be intentional in seeking it out. Plan an adventure with those whom you want to deepen your connection. Experience awe collectively and stand in the bigness of it together. Use your awe-inspiring moments to grow your joy, your creativity, and your community.