With just about anything that’s good these days – a film, a party, even a meal – meriting the description of “awesome,” it’s hardly surprising that many of us have lost the ability to feel genuine awe.
We might not be consciously aware that an entire emotional dimension has flattened out to the point of disappearance, but what we may feel is a world-weariness, a sense of having seen it all, of there being nothing truly wondrous left to experience. And that’s tragic.
Laments a blogger in India: “Are we are so exposed to gadgets and technology, multiple choices of entertainment that even a child as young as four these days feels ‘bored’? “I may still find a cuckoo’s call wonderful, but my son thinks nothing of it. He never looks back at a Gulmohar tree in full bloom, while I may be gushing over its beauty.
An electronic gizmo is more beautiful to him than any flower, mountain or tree.
“Forget nature, even technology has lost the ability to amaze... ” It’s not for nothing that while writers of futuristic novels describe a world which enjoys barely dreamed-of levels of technological advancement, they typically impart a soulless, robotic quality to human life in that far-off reality. What they are depicting, often frighteningly, is the loss of awe – not the kind of fear a “Big Brother” inspires, but loss of the spiritual reverence mixed with dread that humans feel when faced with the sublime.
I EXPERIENCED that dread many years ago when I was a student in England on a visit to Israel and doing some private touring with a friend. In a 2009 column called “A hotline to heaven,” I recalled: “Those were easier, more innocent days, and we hitchhiked across the country with aplomb, taking in its vistas from our lofty perch beside whichever truck driver had stopped for us that day. Now the where, when and why of what I am about to describe are hazy.
But the emotion is as crystal-clear as if it had happened yesterday.
“Twilight was rapidly turning to darkness when we jumped down to earth, bidding our friendly driver goodbye. We were somewhere in the North, and planned to make our way to a youth hostel in the area.
“As we cut across some open countryside, I became aware of a growing disquiet. Everything around us was silent; nothing stirred. There was no artificial light to relieve the blackness, and no moon; only, when I looked up, a boundless immensity of glittering stars.
“That was when I knew a moment of pure, primeval terror. Reason and logic fled; the presence of my companion counted for nothing. I was alone, confronting a vastness that knew me not, and cared about me less.
Lilliputian? Compared to that distant, cold grandeur, I felt like a speck that might disintegrate at any time. Then the moment passed, and we continued on our way.”
Dread? Yes. The experience, albeit brief, was terrifying.
But I had confronted grandeur, and felt its majesty and the awe of something beyond those glittering stars. By comparison, I felt my insignificance, my “speckness”; and yet, paradoxically, I was more significant, more fully human for having experienced it.
SOMEONE WHO understands about awe is American writer Lawrence J. Epstein. Writing on beliefnet.com about his book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism: A Twenty-First- Century Guide to a Timeless Tradition, he said he had discovered that the true spiritual search involved as much recovery as discovery. What modern man needed, he said, was to perceive and experience the world in a new way, to recover insights and perceptions he once had, but lost.
He related an episode when he was out with his small daughter. “As we walked, she spotted a bright, colorful butterfly. She stopped and stared at it as it fluttered around us, and, evidently uninspired, flew away. I was ready to keep walking, but my daughter remained still.
Finally, she turned to me and said, ‘That’s the third butterfly I’ve ever seen in my life.’” That, Epstein wrote, is an example of the first aspect of spiritual recovery: to recapture our childlike innocence about all of life. “The sheer wonder of a butterfly, a sense of awe before its majestic colors and flight, is a symbol of our lost skills, our ability to be overwhelmed by the curious strangeness and beauty of life.”
Epstein recounts of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that he would sometimes walk into an evening lecture or class and announce dramatically that a miracle had just occurred. Gaining the rapt attention of all, he would tell them: “The sun has set.”
Heschel’s sense of awe, of recurring miracles, was for him the gateway to understanding the divine far more than rote prayers or thoughtless ritual. “As he once put it, ‘Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.’” It put me in mind of a friend who is always asking provocative and unanswerable questions about the existence of God or any Higher Power, asserting that he cannot believe “without proof.”
A wise rabbi, undaunted, once counseled him gently: “Put aside the questions. Go out; gaze at the universe. Just be. It’s a good start.”
What he was doing was pointing out to my friend a different route to a different kind of knowledge about the world and his place in it.
And yet, that friend regularly experiences awe, though he might not recognize it as such.
I’ve often heard him express astonishment that a mere human being could compose the amazing piece of music he has just heard, or write the fine book or play that has so moved him.
WE ALL have an inner child, playful, creative and open to marveling at the beauties and mysteries of life. But for many of us, that child may be slumbering deep down in our psyches, buried beneath the noisy and unrelenting demands of modern “grown-up” existence.
We need, said Epstein, to recover not only our ability to see the miracle in the mundane, but also our ability to recall the attendant feelings of wonder we once had, but then “tucked away in our memories.”
One of the best aids in bringing those memories back and, with them, the ability to re-experience awe, is a close relationship with an actual child. Children have a magical ability to see everything as if for the first time, in glorious color, and from angles we would never consider.
My daughter, like so many little girls in the ‘80s and later, had a profound relationship with a number of Barbie dolls, whose voices she would faithfully supply as she played. She once looked up from her “family” and told me matter-of-factly: “I am the neshama (soul) of the Barbie.” It made me see something awe-inspiring even in a mass-produced toy.
FOR ME, an ongoing source of wonder is the continued existence of the Jewish people in the face of a long history of hatred and persecution. I see a miracle in the remarkable resurgence in our ancient homeland, when the peoples who were around in our infancy are long gone.
I once ended a piece about the Shoah by calling our Jewishness “an awesome, terrible privilege.” It is indeed all those things, and if that sounds like a contradiction in terms – well, isn’t that what we Jews ourselves are?
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