Higher Living Reflections

Feeling Awe-Full

During our study of American Romantic and Transcendental literature, I would challenge my juniors to choose between two high-risk ventures: Either walk alone late at night down a dark alley in a rough part of town or through the wilds of Alaska, the home of grizzlies and wolves. That led to some raucous exchanges as they debated among themselves. During the followup, large-group debriefing discussion, two outcomes struck me as particularly telling. The first was how many spoke about going back and forth as they deciphered what their choice said about them. The second was the number that opted for which scenario.

Since then, I posed that challenge to numerous adults. Most landed where my sixteen- and seventeen-year-old students did: the dark alley.

Having a strong nature boy archetype, initially I found that surprising. But upon reflection, I realized there was a lesson to be learned from it: People, by and large, have a fear of nature.

As foreboding and forbidding a dark alley might be, it, nevertheless, symbolizes civilization, and within civilization—”where the peoples is,” as Del Jue defines it in Jeremiah Johnson—lies safety. But therein lies the root of our national angst. Since we Homo sapiens enclosed—barricaded—ourselves behind protective walls, we’ve become risk-averse in its pure sense. For many today, risk-taking involves financial investments, high-stakes gambling, and rush-hour traffic.

Other than occasional strolls through a park, rides along a bike path, or weekend jaunts out to the countryside, ofttimes clutching their wireless umbilical cord, Americans rarely if ever venture into their natural home. And when they do, they do it in a relatively risk-free manner. Though those outings can be beneficial and even crucial for one’s physical, mental, and emotional health, they rarely put people in a place where they can experience something soul-fulfilling. In a word, awe. Because it is in nature where a person experiences awe authentically. Where one becomes awe filled.

Think of a time when you experienced an awe-filled moment, one that made you gasp in wonder because of its power, magnificence, or grandeur. Describe it. Was it in or of a manmade structure or an interaction you had or witnessed? Or was it something beyond human creation?

I often think of the time when a friend and I were descending Wilson Peak in the San Juans and a fierce storm rolled in. We were at about 13,000 feet when lightning started dancing not only above us but also below. Safety protocol called for me to crouch low to avoid being a target, but some soulful power kept me hiking down the trail. As I did, John Denver’s line in “Rocky Mountain High” about raining fire in the sky sang in my mind. Far from freaking out, I was so captivated by what I was more than witnessing, I became, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, part and parcel of it.  

Awful is a strange word in that it seems to contradict itself. Rather than meaning full of awe, it means “not good” or “crappy,” or when used as an adverb, it can denote something positive as in, “She’s awfully good at soccer.” We also bandy awe around lightly when we say we’re in awe of something mundane. When used in those contexts, we trivialize the depth and power of the word. To remind ourselves of the true meaning of awe, it’s helpful to consider the word’s etymology.

Awe is a derivative of ahe, an Old English word, which was taken from the Old Norse agi that meant terror as well as deep reverence. That might seem like a double usage or meaning, but it’s not. Terror, in this case, is not the kind of terror we generally think of, like an act of terrorism. Rather, it means being completely overwhelmed by an event, presence, or force so beyond human comprehension it causes a shift in consciousness. We’re moved beyond being super impressed into a higher dimension of awareness and profundity.

In the end, an authentic sense of awe is a spiritual experience. Of course, it’s not within most peoples’ ability or means to climb a mountain or sidestep behind a roaring waterfall. But transcendent moments can happen simply by reflecting on a rainbow, watching wildlife as they roam and graze, sitting on your porch during a hellacious thunderstorm, or, if brazen enough, chasing or getting chased by a tornado.

To become whole, it’s essential to encounter and touch the sublime from time to time. It not only reminds you of your fragility and vulnerability in the face of the power and mystery of nature and universe, its effects can help you put the strife and tension of human affairs into perspective. Because feeling awe-full reminds us that relative to nature we’re not invincible and as tough as we often delude ourselves into believing.

You Might Also Like

  • Patty Pooh
    June 18, 2024 at 10:22 am

    Beautiful read. I am awe struck pretty much daily just looking around. Driving to work I witness wonders…a herd of deer in a field, a crane flying over my truck, turtles crossing the road, and those beautiful foothills of the Ozarks getting to see the morning sun before it covers the lowlands.
    Yes, and the storms. Magnificent. If people would only slow down and enjoy what’s truly right in front if them. Wow. Whatta better world this would be

  • Angie Fabyanic-Skiffen
    June 18, 2024 at 3:40 pm

    Wonderful essay. Really makes one reflect on their life. I would’ve chosen Alaska. At least nature is beautiful, clean and honest, unlike civilization. Taking a meander through the woods is really what calms my soul. I remember when we ran down that 14er back in ’09 with the storm crashing all around us. Was so happy up there. Would’ve been content to have the mountain take me. It was beautiful!

  • Donna Taylor
    June 19, 2024 at 3:57 pm

    Agree with your thoughts above. I’ve experienced a few occasions where the power of nature created the awe effect. Roaring waves of the ocean or wind and snow thrashing upside down on a mountaintop. The realization that the power of nature is indifferent to our individual existence can be liberating as well as frightening. I also am in awe of the functioning of big cities – skyscrapers along with underground tunnels and subways, the continual activity and variety of human experience. So I agree that the dark alley scenario is more familiar than being eye to eye with a hungry animal – if we imagine the worst circumstance.

  • Ann
    June 21, 2024 at 9:04 pm

    It must be in the genes to prefer nature! Something about the crunch of gravel while walking a country road, the wind blowing through the fields, watching a storm roll in over the mountains, the animals bounding from the trees. I find humanity more terrifying than nature.

  • Melanie Mulhall
    June 23, 2024 at 8:44 pm

    I’d take my chances in nature. This subject of awe is an important one, so important that Dacher Keltner wrote an entire book about it, titled (appropriately) Awe.

  • Bernie
    June 24, 2024 at 3:50 am

    I would have flunked because I would have picked neither. Not the first time this risk adverse person disagreed with the rest or the requirement to pick one. I don’t have that much experience with nature adventures or city life with dark alleyways although I can definitely appreciate the view of the mountains.