Awe and Wonder: Primal Openness

I want to write of awe and wonder as beauty, nature and all good things.  Those things fit the current perception of the words.  We say “awesome” about anything that is good, from basic gratitude for every day tasks to breathtaking views of natural formations on the earth.  Someone brings us a report due at work and we say “awesome.”  We stand before the Grand Canyon for the first time and exclaim: “awesome.”

Awe has deep roots in many western languages which boil down to this:  fear.  Not enough? Fear, dread, depression.  The word has, through many languages and cultures, expressed the structural dis-assembly we feel as we stand witness before certain experiences which open us up so much that we begin to feel that we are falling apart.  In fact, the older English expression is “to stand awe” of something.  It strikes me that to stand awe of something, we have to be witness to an event that takes us beyond what we are prepared to control.  It’s that loss of control over what is unfolding in front of us that commonly strikes fear, dread and depression in us.  These experiences loosen us from the notion that we have been in control, and while fear, dread and depression are not anything we want to sign up for, these kinds of opening up experiences are what transform us.

Awe, even the pronunciation of the word, requires an open posture.  More to the point, when awe visits us, it opens up the clenching we have on some aspect of our lives and allows something else, SOMETHING ELSE, to move through us.  So, let’s be clear.  Awe is not fear or dread or depression.  It is this great, often unexpected, opening up to something beyond us, beyond the capacities we believe we have, and in the midst of that experience we feel fear.  We feel dread.  We feel ourselves falling apart.  We fall into some new place, in a new way, and in many respects, become new people.  We might look back on it and say:  that was AWful.  And yet, this AWful thing has brought us to this place now where we live.  It has helped make us who we now are.

Some things will come into our lives and we will stand awe of them.  They will change us, and while I’ve had enough of them in my life to know that the pain of fear, dread and depression is real, I have a growing confidence that some true beauty does emerge.  Awe is an essential part of the way this being human works.

Bob Patrick

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