Sometimes, we forget how much our world has changed.
In a famous 2005 commencement address – later adapted for a video that went viral on the internet – David Foster Wallace details the emptiness that many people experience as a part of an ordinary adult day. As examples, he chronicles the routines of waking up, going to work, having to go to the supermarket, wait in line, and drive home in traffic. As Wallace notes, perhaps worse than anything, these activities recur, day after day, month after month, and year after year.
Often times, routines such as this can “crowd out” other possibilities. Other times, life can wear us down, and we simply don’t feel the energy to pursue anything greater. Yet, we still may wonder, “is this all there is?”
This has not always been the case.
Most of us likely can remember times where we felt full of astonishment, particularly as children. We regularly were surprised, immersed, humbled, confused, and expanded as we explored the world around us. We likely anticipated a future full of amazement as well. As examples, I vividly remember feeling mesmerized gazing at vastness of Lake Superior, experiencing the magic of Christmas, seeing my athletic heroes practicing before the start of the first professional baseball game I attended, and a school field trip for my first live theater performance.
Our ancestors also would be stunned by our lives today. Although progress is clear in many domains, increased technology, individualism, and stress is restricting the lifestyles and well-being of many. Rather than being actively involved in natural and social environments, our lifestyles have become mundane.
All of this points to a critical story that largely has been untold in our time. People have experienced a loss of awe.
Awe-deprivation can be observed in many key areas of life. People are spending less mindful time in natural settings. Participation in organized religious groups is declining in many developed countries. Admiration for others is more difficult, as isolation becomes more common. Even schools, which have so much potential to nurture the natural sense of awe that many children naturally experience, tend not to do so for various reasons, perhaps even thwarting kids’ curiosity in the process.
Psychological scientists only recently have started to study awe, an emotional experience in which individuals are overwhelmed by vastness or greatness to the point that they need to alter how they understand the world. Studies are beginning to reveal, however, several significant effects of awe. For instance, awe appears to enhance individuals’ feelings of belonging, time availability, generosity, spirituality, and humility. Physical health also seems better when individuals feel more awe. People even are more likely to help someone in need after an awe experience.
Understanding the importance of awe has the potential to inform our lives. It helps us to appreciate some of our most meaningful experiences from the past. It also sheds light on society, for instance, helping us to understand why good magicians generate such excitement, the most popular movies break attendance records, and even why sporting events go out of their way to have such dramatic introductions.
More significant for many of us is the potential for awe to rekindle our sense of vitality in everyday life.
The dishes still will need to be done, but maybe we can make some time to behold a star-filled sky, listen to the power of a waterfall’s crash, appreciate the complexity of a snowflake, or even plan a trip, whether that be a trip camping or travelling to one of the great “wonders of the world.”
Laundry still is necessary, but perhaps there is a way for us to probe the source from which our life springs, feel mystery in a text sacred to us, experience humility in the presence of something higher than ourselves, or find a religious group that inspires us to feel reverent.
Bills must be paid, but possibly we can remember the birth of our children, feel wonderment for the self-healing nature of our bodies, admire the mind-blowing skill of a live musician, or appreciate the inspiring sacrifices of a parent.
Rather than checking our technology for the most recent messages, perhaps we can get lost in the joy and challenge of learning something new that stretches our knowledge, shatters our preconceptions, and makes us curious to learn more.
Breaking routines, and making more time for inspiration can be difficult at first. However, by taking steps toward greater awe in our lives, we can rediscover that which brings us most fulfillment and meaning.
As Annie Dillard said, “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”