Min's Musings: On Awe and Perspective

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Every quarter, I like to visit Grace Cathedral for a little self-check-in time. I call it my quarterly "pilgrimage," when, for a few hours, I get away from work, stay off the internet, and allow for reflection. On my pilgrimage earlier this week, I began to consider why I enjoyed performing this ritual so much. What was it that I gained that made the trek so worthwhile? Craning my neck up towards the high ceilings of the church, I recognized within myself a sensation that can only be described as awe. Awe is what brings me back to Grace, what entices me back to these more silent moments of thought. Truth is, I long for awe in my life.

Some might say that inner peace or clarity of mind is what is sought after in self-reflection. For me, these are actually the results of starting from a place of awe. Awe involves an encounter with something that is beyond myself. There is an element of befuddlement and wonder - a recognition that something is so big, vast, profound, complex or beyond knowing that I am left gaping or sighing without much to say. At face value, it might seem that the natural response to this is fear. If something is so unfathomable, it would make sense that people would steer clear of it. I think much of consumer culture is a series of attempts at turning away from that which would hold us in awe.

Many religious folk might say that when we are in awe, we are re-connecting with the divine love of God. Moments of awe are really moments of beholding God. And the fact that God Almighty, who is perhaps the most fearful being in the universe, would deign to let us ponder God Almighty is seen as a definition of grace. An awesome thought, indeed. And not necessarily one I disagree with.

But something that has bothered me about that line of thought is how packaged the whole thing comes out. Clearly defining the experience of awe with such unabashed certitude seems to... well, de-awe the whole thing. The emotional responses of love, hope and even fear seem to be what comes after awe. But what I wanted to know, sitting in the Cathedral as groups of tourists snapped photo after photo of the building's grandeur, was why was I drawn to awe itself? I recognize my need for love and hope, but those aren't the reasons why I go to Grace. I enjoy being in awe - but why?

 Grace's latest environmental art installment. Isn't it awe-some?

Grace's latest environmental art installment. Isn't it awe-some?

The best answer I could find for myself that day was perspective. Awe is a moment of perspective revision. When I gaze upon the Cathedral, when I take in a view of the Grand Canyon, when I ponder God and existence, the common thread is that my perspective is shattered. Something that doesn't seem possible is, or something that once seemed so simple is inconceivable. In any case, awe occurs when my grasp on reality is disturbed. In the cases of nature or art, that disturbance is often delightfully surprising. But awe isn't always so kind. Awe can yield paralyzing fear and horror. But my point is that any awesome encounter, regardless of the emotional result, brings a new or wider perspective (even if it means a disorienting one). And as someone who loves the idea of continual growth and evolution through life, this perspective shift is what draws me to awe again and again.

Now let's get real. Am I always in this happy, fuzzy state where awe is always welcome? Of course not. I love mental distractions and simple thinking as much as any other person who watches Sailor Moon fanatically... Nor am I saying we should always be in awe, because quite frankly I don't think anything would get done in the world if we were in a constant state of getting our mind blown ("Double rainbow...What does it mean...?"). But every now and again, I think creating space for that awe to well up in me does me a great amount of good, keeping my perspective in check and reminding me of my size in the scheme of things. It's kinda awesome.

Posted on July 10, 2014 and filed under Thought.