- 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
Biber’s Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas capture the emotional component of the seeking spirit, which is awe. Drawing on the central Christian narrative of the Christ’s life and resurrection, they are divided into three sections. Here are links to Rachel Podger’s recording, and links to recordings by Manze and Egarr, and Sinkovsky.
- Dutilleux, Cello Concerto: Tout un monde lointain (A whole distant world) (1970): the awe is for life.
- Piston, The Incredible Flutist (1938)
- Finzi, Intimations of Immortality, Op. 29 (1950)
- Bibalo, Autunnale
- Braga Santos, Symphony No. 5, Op. 39, "Virtus Lusitaniae" (1966)
- Raga Chandranandan (“chandra” means “moon”), Hindustani classical raag composed by Ali Akbar Khan for late evening (performances by Ali Akbar Khan, Ali Akbar Khan and Chowdhury, and Ali Akbar Khan and Nikhil Banerjee (here is part 2)
- Gloria Coates, String Quartet No. 5 (1988): movement 1; movement 2; movement 3
- Langaard, Symphony No. 1, “Klippepastoraler” (Mountain Pastorals), BVN 32 (1908-1911)
- Loreena McKennitt, “The Mask and Mirror”, 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.
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.”