Awe – being aware of, excited about and engaged with the world and all it has to offer. Awe is centered in the domain of emotions.
- The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms— this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men. [Albert Einstein, from Henry Goddard Leach, Living Philosophies (Simon and Schuster, 1931).]
In her first moments outside the womb, my daughter seemed to be looking around the delivery room, eyes open, trying to take in what she was seeing and experiencing for the first time. I doubt that a newborn infant has what we would identify as a capacity for awe. Yet in reflecting on my own early life experiences, beginning at the age of three I think, I recall on occasion wondering what this was all about. Awe is among other things an attitude that sets a tone for our approach to life.
Immediately on addressing the subject of awe, we run into complexity. Scholarship on the subject of awe identifies three elements: 1. Awe is induced by unique features “characterized by vastness and a need for accommodation”; 2. its subcomponents include wonder, fear, joy and reverence (this had led researchers to distinguish between positive and negative awe); and 3. It can diminish the sense of self, thereby inducing a sense of humility. Another study found that “awe promotes awareness of knowledge gaps and science interest”. A particular kind of awe seems to promote curiosity and lead to improved academic outcomes. For example, many scientists report that their sense of awe “motivates them to answer questions about the natural world”.
However, humility-inducing effects may not be seen among some groups of theists. Corollarially a sense of awe can be associated with an increased inclination to perceive human agency in nature and in random events. This should not surprise anyone: awe is mainly an emotion, so we are best advised to approach it with caution. That does not mean that we should avoid it. Like many things that present us with challenges, awe opens doors – which of those doors we enter, and where we go from there, we can also choose by coupling a sense of awe with reason and common sense. No single component of an ethical system can be considered in isolation; it is always part of the entire package that comprises a whole person. As reasoning people, we have the power to use our emotions for good.
Awe, along with its apparent effects, is a subject of a developing body of scholarship among psychologists. It is often perceived as being in relation to nature. People who are high in dispositional awe seem to be happier than those who are not. One study suggests that “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being”. Awe can be chosen, practiced and nurtured. Along with gratitude, it can be a successful coping strategy in response to illness. There is, however a “dark side of awe”, a threat-based variant that makes reason an essential part of a complete ethical system. Neural correlates of awe experiences are demonstrable.
Awe has implications for the individual’s relationship to others and to society. It has been found to be positively associated with a commitment to environmentalism. Another study has found that a sense of awe is associated with “compassion, love, gratitude, and optimism, along with connectedness and self-relevant thoughts.” At least one study has found that awe may “counteract the adverse effects of the exertion of self-control on prosocial behavior.”
In our model, we depart from longstanding conceptions of awe in this: We choose to approach life without fear. Fear of things over which we have no control serves no purpose. On the contrary, it can freeze us into a state of inaction and powerlessness. By eliminating one element, and coupling awe with reason, we can transform it into a powerful tool for ethics and spirituality.
Awe can be seen as “the Experience of the Sublime”. To be clear, living with this attitude is a choice. By making that choice, we set a framework for living openly, enthusiastically and productively.
My father, who was a poor farmer from Michigan, developed a greater sense of awe as he aged. In his later years, he would go outside and looked at the stars most evenings. He lived modestly but as he saw it, he was rich beyond measure. He could see everything, and though he would have made light of the comparison, he had something important in common with Einstein.
- Paul Klee, Magic Garden (1926)
- Paul Klee, Cosmic Composition (1919)
- Konstantin Yuov, The Magic Winter. Ligachevo (1912)
- Frederic Edwin Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866)
- Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis (1865)
- Frederic Edwin Church, Mount Desert Island, Maine (1865)
- Frederic Edwin Church, Natural Bridge, Virginia (1852)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas (Rosenkranzsonaten) (ca. 1674) (approx. 122-145’), “are intentionally enigmatic, revealing underlying connections to the sensual yet deliberately mysterious nature of Catholic art and culture of his day.” “. . . their technical demands and innovations have given them a mystique quite apart from their religious associations.” “The sonatas do not tell the story of the lives of Jesus and Mary in any obvious way. Although there is occasional tone painting depicting dramatic moments, such as the fluttering of the angels' wings, the hammering of the nails, or the earthquake, some listeners have wondered and some writers have speculated about exactly how the sonatas relate to their mysteries. Why, for example, is there sometimes a dance or virtuosic passage in the middle of a sorrowful part of the story? Were some of these sonatas adapted from pieces written earlier for other occasions? Rather than explicit storytelling, the music seems to provide us with moments of reflection, leaving each listener to find his or her own meaning.” “Given the title of the Mysery Sonatas, it is no surprise to find that Biber has often been written about as a 'mystery man' or a 'man of many mysteries'. . . . he had a sharp wit as good as anyone, and the written Latin and German dedications to his music collections reveal that Biber was never satisfied to say anything concisely or straightforwardly and with one meaning, when two, three or more meanings were possible.” Listening to these sonatas, Biber’s sense of awe, about something, is palpable. Top recorded performances are by Melkus, et. al., in 1967, Goebel & Cologne Musica Antiqua in 1990, Letzbor & Ars Antique Austria in 1996, Demeterová & Toma in 1997, Manze & Egarr in 2003, Lotter & Lyriarte in 2004 ***, Wedman & Sono Luminus in 2010, Kaakinen-Pilch & Battalia in 2013, Tur Bonet & Musica Alchemica in 2015, and Podger, et. al., in 2015.
- Henri Dutilleux, Cello Concerto: Tout un monde lointain (A whole distant world) (1970) (28-30’): the awe is for life.
- Walter Piston, The Incredible Flutist Suite (1938) (approx 16-18’); ballet (approx 34’): “In a quiet village, a circus suddenly interrupts just after siesta-time with a parade. The circus boasts The Incredible Flutist, who enchants women, including the local merchant’s daughter.”
- Joly Braga Santos, Symphony No. 5, Op. 39, "Virtus Lusitaniae" (The Virtue of Lusitania) (1966) (approx 31-33’) – Lusitania is “the two-thousand-year-old Roman designation for Portugal”, the composer’s homeland. A statement from the composer gives a clue to his sense of the work: “. . . the percussion section, with over twelve players, plays an important rôle evoking the marimba players of Zavala, a region south of Mozambique, with its centuries old tradition which is still practised: dozens of marimbas, tuned in different keys with different scales, some of which have an intervallic structure alien to European music”.
- Raga Chandranandan (“chandra” means “moon”, and “chandranan” means “moonstruck”), is a Hindustani classical raag composed by Ali Akbar Khan for late evening . Performances are by Ali Akbar Khan, Ali Akbar Khan and Swapan Chowdhury, and Ali Akbar Khan and Nikhil Banerjee (part 1 and part 2).
- Gloria Coates, String Quartet No. 5 (1988) (approx. 31’): the three movements are “Through Time”, “Through Space”, and “In the Fifth Dimension”.
- Rued Langgaard, Symphony No. 1, “Klippepastoraler” (Mountain Pastorals), BVN 32 (1908-1911) (approx. 60-67’): Despite strong criticism, the work has been recorded by several top orchestras. It is “full of grandiose orchestral gestures”, and is about a grandeur of nature.
- Amanda Lee Falkenberg, “The Moons Symphony” (2020) (approx. 42’), “exists at the intersection of art and science, delivering an aural tour of some of the most amazing moons in our solar system.”
These albums by Klaus Wiese:
- “Uranus – Tibetan Singing Bowls” (1988) (62’)
- “Neptun – Tibetan Singing Bowls” (1989) (57’)
- “Space – Tibetan Singing Bowls” (1990) (60’)
- “Mystic Landscapes” (1992) (58’)
- Loreena McKennitt, “The Mask and Mirror” (1994) (53’), uses ancient instruments, coupled (unfortunately) with contemporary dance rhythms and her unremarkable pop-voice to create a collection of songs honoring 15th-century Spanish culture. “The album excels at conjuring up mythical visions in the listener's imagination . . .”
- Brian Eno, “Apollo” (1982) (48’): “When I was asked to do the music for the film, I discovered that the astronauts were each allowed to take a cassette with them on those missions, and they nearly all took country and western songs. I thought it was a fabulous idea that people were out in space, playing this music which really belongs to another frontier—in a way, seeing themselves as cowboys.” [Eno]
How countlessly they congregate / O'er our tumultuous snow, / Which flows in shapes as tall as trees / When wintry winds do blow!--
As if with keenness for our fate, / Our faltering few steps on / To white rest, and a place of rest / Invisible at dawn,--
And yet with neither love nor hate, / Those stars like some snow-white /
Minerva's snow-white marble eyes / Without the gift of sight.
[Robert Frost, “Stars”.]
- William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
- Walt Whitman, “Sparkles from the Wheel”
- Rabindranath Tagore, 95
- Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”
- Rachel Jamison Webster, “Kauai”
. . . when, at length, the dragon-fly alighted on the tip of a reed, and, holding your breath the while, you were able to examine the long, gauze wings, the long enamel robe, the two globes of crystal, what astonishment you felt, and what fear lest you should again behold the form disappear into a shade, and the creature into a chimera! Recall these impressions, and you will readily appreciate what Gringoire felt on contemplating, beneath her visible and palpable form, that Esmeralda of whom, up to that time, he had only caught a glimpse, amidst a whirlwind of dance, song, and tumult. [Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Volume I, Book Second, Chapter VII, “A Bridal Night”.]
- Mathias Énard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants: A Novel (2010): “Énard imagines that in 1506, Michelangelo Buonarroti steps away from his work on the tomb of Pope Julius II, and from the vagaries of his powerful patron, to travel to Constantinople at the invitation of the Sultan Bayezid to design a bridge across the Golden Horn.”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Sérgio Assad, Clarice Assad & Third Coast Percussion, “The Magician”