The Experience of Awe

Awe: “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear…produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.”

I can recall experiencing awe quite often when I was young. On a family trip to Wyoming, for example, I remember being awe-struck on several occasions. The first was produced by the sheer size of the sky. Back home, in New Jersey, the sky seemed smaller because too many low trees and buildings blocked your view. In Wyoming, the sky was huge…it reminded me of the first time I saw the ocean.

On the same trip to Wyoming, I witnessed a thunderstorm as it approached from the distance. I was awe-struck by the dark, dynamic clouds that seemed to swallow the sky as they quickly crossed the wide expanse. The thunderstorm came and went quite quickly, and that very evening the sky was clear. At night, I experienced awe looking up at the stars above—I had no idea so many stars inhabited the night’s sky.

Nature is often a source of awe. It can so often be grand, extremely powerful, and sublime. But the man-made world can inspire awe as well. Large mega-structures like the Hoover Dam, which holds an impressive 10 trillion gallons of water, or the large radio-telescopes we’ve created to gain insights into the cosmos produce awe. Then there are the ancient man-made structures that produce awe. The pyramids in Egypt and the Great Wall in China stand out as prime examples of ancient man’s ability to create structures which are awe-inspiring.

With so much around us capable of producing awe, why is it that most of us seem to experience awe less often as we age? Is there social pressure that causes us to block or closely monitor our experience of awe? Or is it simply that with age we have accumulated more experience and are therefore less awe-struck by what we find in the world around us?

When I think of awe, not only do I think of admiration and fear, but wonder as well. I associate awe with the feeling of being amazed by what exists, by the sheer diversity, grandeur, strength, and beauty found so often in the human and natural worlds.

Perhaps we should work harder to cultivate the experience of awe. When I reflect on my past experiences of awe, I find myself amazed all over again by what the world holds. Indeed, reflecting on awe-inspiring moments fills me with wonder and a desire to explore. It reminds me that the world is full of such opportunities, we simply need to look and to be more receptive to them.

What do you think?

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