It is good that we have acquired so much knowledge of ourselves and our environment. Though there is still an immeasurable chasm standing between what we currently understand and all there is to know, we have come a long way.
But it is a tightrope we walk. Between learning about a thing and experiencing it there is a fine line. Perhaps the ideal is the perfect blend of artist and scientist; a fifty-fifty split right down the middle between understanding the physical mechanics of the phenomenon being observed and the childlike wonder evoked naturally by the encounter. I prefer to think it’s the tension between these two ways of being in the world that’s critical to living life to its fullest.
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
― Walt Whitman
Awe lies at the intersection between understanding and bewilderment. It is neither and it is both. Overcome at once by immensity, power, mortality, and beauty, the reality of our insignificance and lack of anything more than the slightest influence upon the universe becomes impossible to ignore. There is a kind of grasp of the real situation that comes with awe that is at once true and immeasurable. To understand geology and paleontology as you sit upon the rim of a cliff that has been hundreds of millions of years in the making — that you are in fact resting upon the uplifted floor of an ancient seabed — adds character and depth to the experience. Deep time is thereby added to the present picture as your sense of connection expands beyond contemporary life to creatures long since extinct.
Though still understudied, there is an emerging science of awe. This research does not presume to reduce the experience to its essence (a futile exercise if ever there was one). Rather it seeks to describe the effects the experience has upon us. It turns out, as one might expect, that awe is pretty darn good for us.
For one thing, it alters our sense of time, effectively slowing things down and bringing us into the present moment. Experiencing awe also increases empathy and altruism by enhancing our sense of interconnectedness.
“Awe doesn’t just inspire ethical behavior. Recent studies suggest that experiencing awe may boost your immune system and make you feel more creative, too. It can even make you feel that you have more time to get things done.” ~ Smithsonian Magazine, August 6, 2015
Unfortunately, we have generally fallen out of the habit of seeking out or opening ourselves to experiences of awe. Our smartphones have conditioned us to look down at the screen rather than up at the heavens. Children do not play outside nearly as often as they did just a generation or two ago, while many of their parents spend much of their waking hours working in climate controlled offices. Outdoor time on the weekend, at least during the summer months, often involves yard work rather than more inspiring pursuits.
Of course, there is never a guarantee that awe will be the result if we decide to ignore the lawn and go for a hike into the nearest mountain range instead. But awe is far more likely to pay us a visit if we’re open to the experience in the first place, and we too rarely are these days.
The psychologist Paul Pearsall, perhaps growing weary of patients coming to him in search of closure, coined the phrase “openture” to describe an attitude that is perhaps necessary for increasing our chances of awe. Oliver Burkeman, writing for The Guardian, described Pearsall’s neologism this way: “a mindset of actively welcoming awe, of being committed to fully experiencing everything that can be experienced, not just life’s good bits.”
We’re a rather impatient and hedonic culture. We grow restless if required to stand in line for a few minutes, and, as one recent study revealed, we are more likely to choose electric shocks than sitting alone with our thoughts for very long. Perhaps a little awe would put us on the road to placing things back into something closer to the proper perspective. It’s hard to take oneself too seriously when confronted with the fact that an atom is to us what we are to the universe if that much.
With spring approaching the opportunities for experiencing awe will, as they do every year, literally be bursting from the ground. So do yourself a favor; take a walk in the forest, climb a nearby hill or mountain to take in the view, or visit the desert and watch how even in the harshest environments life can do beautiful things with scarce resources. Practice a little openture as you go. There are never any guarantees, of course, but awe may just surprise you if you do.
Other recent stories by Craig Axford: Objectivity vs. Subjectivity: An Incongruity That Isn’t Really & Getting There