Is it ‘awesome’ or awe inspiring?

Some powerful experiences of awe can change one’s life in profound and permanent ways.

waterfall 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
waterfall 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Many people are awestruck in the presence of celebrities. These celebrities are usually movie stars or sports heroes, with exceptional talent, looks or skill. It is an admiration for a status or ability that is exceptional.
People go out of their way to seek contact with such celebrities, asking for autographs and trying to touch and shake hands with them. It is as if the important social status of the celebrity could be transferred through contact.
But this sense of awe is really an admiration for the exceptional. It has led to the overused word “awesome” to describe an exciting or thrilling experience.
Psychologist Dacher Keltner explained that the true emotion of authentic awe has two distinct qualities: perceived vastness and accommodation. Authentic awe happens when a person perceives something that is vast and something he cannot accommodate. Not being able to accommodate means that it is beyond his ability to comprehend, so it elicits fear, reverence or elevation. It makes a person stop in his “cognitive tracks” and feel small and powerless.
This authentic awe gives us a sense of wonder and the realization that something much larger and more powerful than we are is “out there.” Wonder alone is considered an emotion that people feel when perceiving something unexpected or rare. Authentic awe is wonder with the added experience of reverence. One of the most awe-inspiring experiences ever reported was the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. The Bible describes the scene with powerful language, and the experience resonates for us thousands of years later.
“The dawn of the third day broke amid thunder and lightning that filled the air. Heavy clouds hung over the mountain and the steadily growing sounds of the shofar made the people shake and tremble with fear. Moses led the children of Israel out of the camp and placed them at the foot of Mount Sinai, which was all covered by smoke and was quaking, for God had descended upon it in fire. The sound of the shofar grew louder, but suddenly all sounds ceased, and an absolute silence ensued; and then God proclaimed the Ten Commandments” (Exodus, chapter 20).
Keltner also explains that in the past, the experience of awe was often socially associated with respect to a person in a position of power.
Society was much more hierarchical, and people were more inclined to subordinate their own interests and goals to those of a powerful leader. In such societies, awe justifies and reinforces social hierarchies by motivating commitment to a leader.
An example of this form of awe was exhibited by a commoner in the presence of a king for the first time. The experience involved a sense of being overwhelmed because royalty falls outside his daily experience. It was also accompanied by a sense of reverence, as the king had power over the lives of commoners.
But our modern Western world is governed by egalitarian values. Most people do not seek to idolize any one individual and bestow upon him unlimited power over their lives. Perhaps the most common experience of awe for contemporary egalitarian societies is the response to phenomena in nature. We feel awe in response to large natural phenomena such as mountains, vistas, storms and oceans.
Yet with the advent of science and technology, we are becoming immune to the awe-inspiring potential of nature. Three hundred years ago, a young boy may have asked his father why an apple falls from a tree, and his father would have answered that it did so because God wanted it to fall. Today, that father would say it was due to gravity.
The great philosopher Abraham Heschel lamented that modern man falls into a trap of losing his sense of wonder because he believes science can explain all natural phenomena.
That makes the wonder of nature into nothing more than a reflection of one’s ignorance.
“Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of disenchantment with God,” wrote Heschel.
Keltner explains that nature-inspired awe involves a diminished self and the sense of being in the presence of a higher power. Natural beauty is vast in relation to the self and can transcend one’s degree of understanding.
To allow ourselves to be open to this experience of awe in nature, we need to leave our man-made home environment. We must leave the safety of our city and our home and expose ourselves to the vastness and overwhelming experience of nature. Be it ocean, mountain, forest or jungle, it can inspire awe in us. To be at the base of a rocky cliff with the breaking of huge waves, the thundering roar of a massive waterfall or the vastness of a high mountaintop can be awe inspiring.
Why is awe important? Our experience of the vastness and incomprehensibility of a powerful natural event makes us feel small and insignificant. It helps develop one’s sense of humility. At the same time, we revere the power behind it.
Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion, has said that our connection to God is due to such experiences because of our need to believe in a grand power that rules over a sense of order in our universe. In fact, some powerful experiences of awe can change one’s life in profound and permanent ways.
By connecting with the divine presence during such experiences, we are both recognizing our human limitations and developing a sense of security because we are connecting with that divine power As Martin Seligman wrote, “Meaningful happiness comes from connecting with something greater than the self.” There is nothing greater than connecting with God.
This ability of nature to inspire such a connection is evident in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson after his walk in the forest: “In the woods we return to faith. There I feel... my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted to infinite space – all mean of egotism vanishes... I become part and parcel of God.”
The writer is a clinical psychologist and certified life coach, who helps young adult males, adults in transition and business executives achieve positive goals. He has offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.