Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Awe Deprivation

I came across an interesting article in the New York Times last week. It was about the importance of Awe. If you've heard me speak more than a few times, you know how important this topic is to me. Awe is one of the core religious emotions and impulses*--it's at the foundation of most of our authentic religious/spiritual moments, and an integral part of all religious life.

* The other two are need and gratitude. This is all summed up in the pithy statement (which I first heard from Rabbi Rick Block) that there are only 3 prayers in the world, and they're all 1 word: "Please," "Thanks," and "Wow." Everything else is just a wordier version of these.

Of course, if you've heard me speak more than a few times, you've also heard me quote or reference Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel more than a few times, too. And, no one does a better job of talking about awe than Heschel. More than anyone I've ever come across, Heschel is almost obsessed with awe--with experiencing it, with trying to express it, and especially with trying to get people to seek it out, and to embrace it. In fact, it was probably his writing about awe, more than anything else, which really drew me to him.

This article, though, adds a nice perspective to this ongoing conversation. First of all, it confirms, scientifically, the effect that awe can have on us. They actually do awe-based experiments, and show that people are nicer to each other after experiencing awe. It reminded me of a lesson I learned from Jay Michaelson who taught that one of the universal criteria for authentic mystical experiences is an increase in kindness. If you have what you think is a mystical experience, and you don't feel kinder towards others when you're done, then you didn't have an honest mystical experience. True religion and kindness are inextricably joined together [insert diatribe against cruel, evil religious extremists here].

The article also tries to think a bit about why awe is so powerful. What it comes up with isn't so shockingly new, but it's worth thinking about. Awe is, by definition, an awareness of our own smallness as compared to the greatness of God, or the world, or one aspect of the world (think of the feeling we get when standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or watching a massive storm roll in). That sense of smallness leads pretty smoothly to a realization that our own needs are, ultimately, pretty inconsequential. And that makes it much easier to be open to the needs of others around us. The greatness of the world makes it seem much less important to focus on the needs of little old me!

But, it's the last point in the article that might be most worth thinking about. Because, if awe is so important (and, I'm pretty sure that it is), then we should think seriously about how much awe we're getting, and how we can get more:
You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events — live music, theater, museums and galleries — has dropped over the years. This goes for children, too: Arts and music programs in schools are being dismantled in lieu of programs better suited to standardized testing; time outdoors and for novel, unbounded exploration are sacrificed for résumé-building activities. 
We believe that awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds. 
All of us will be better off for it.
If your religion (or whatever else you have in your life, if you're not religious) hasn't been helping to lead you to more awe, then it's been failing you. Go see some art. Go out in nature. Find something awe inspiring, and just take it in.

Pursue those goosebumps. They're the sign of an encounter with something, or some One, worth knowing.

1 comment:

Megan said...

Have you seen/read Anne Lamott's book on prayer? It's called Help, Thanks, Wow: The 3 Essential Prayers.