My wife and I went to the symphony the other night. The opening performance for this year’s Symphony Orchestra Augusta season was entitled Under The Stars, and it featured several very good pieces of music that entertained us and made us forget our troubles for a little while. I have been recovering for the last two weeks from surgery that I had put off for months because of the pandemic, and this was my very first foray out of the house. I was feeling that odd combination of pain and boredom and discomfort and cabin fever and pandemic drag that at the same time dampen one’s resolve to do anything and leave one open to do anything. We had the tickets, the show was on, so we went.
Now, one of the pieces was a violin concerto that featured a young artist who played an instrument crafted in the 1700’s. He was obviously so at home with the music, felt it, breathed it, and then translated it through his fingers and the strings under them back to us that it made us just sit in awe for a few long seconds after the piece had concluded and the standing ovation had subsided. He had performed the piece, yes, technically almost flawlessly at least to my ears, but he had done so much more than that. In this first time back in the theater, masks on and making cumbersome attempts to still physically distance from those we did not know, we were treated to something magical. In this time when seven hundred thousand of us have died from COVID-19, one of us, one very talented, gifted, emotional, breathing, feeling one of us was willing to share something so profound that it left us gasping, and not because we could not breathe behind our KN95s. We felt appreciation for his talent. We felt gratitude for his presence. We felt love for the music. We felt awe.
In her September 29, 2021 Wall Street Journal article titled Ways to Find the Awe in Daily Life, Elizabeth Bernstein said that “awe is the “Wow!” emotion, that feeling we get when something is so vast it stops us in our tracks.” You remember it from the pre-pandemic times, don’t you? That feeling you get when you first hike in Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. The joy you feel every time you get up early enough to see a sun rise at the beach on a beautiful late summer day. The deep down satisfaction you get when you hear a piece of choral music written hundreds of years ago that speaks to the mysteries we still seek answers for in the twenty first century. All of these things and more can cause us to simply say “Wow!”. We have no other words.
According to Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, awe experiences decrease stress and anxiety and increase positive emotions and overall satisfaction in life. They might even make us feel more compassionate towards others in our lives, less greedy and more supported, therefore more likely to help others. What a sorely needed concept in these trying times. Now, most of us, and I count myself here, tend to “associate awe” with something that is one of a kind, “rare and beautiful”, or so intense that it is seldom felt or heard or experienced, says Bernstein in her column. Of course, there is more. People can trigger awe, even those we are closest to and most familiar with, she says. David B Yaden, a research fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says “you don’t need to go into orbit, or to a museum or a national park. It’s in your home.” Sorry, William Shatner. (I do hope you enjoy those few minutes of awesome weightlessness tomorrow though)
Awe can come as “a response to life’s big, sweeping changes”, says Bernstein, “but interpersonal awe happens in small moments, too.” We can’t really make others behave in ways that are awesome or call up awesome events at our whim, but we can prime ourselves to always be on the lookout for these things and people and events that bring this feeling forth in us. We can even boost the positive effects that come from the awe experience. How?
Bernstein suggests that we do several things but a couple of them stood out to me and I want to share them with you. First, name awe when you see it. Identify awe. Remember the experience, she says. Savor the moment. Tell others about it. This will both cement the feeling for you, and share it with others. Most importantly, thank the person who awed you. Whether it is an artist or musician or thespian or storyteller or cashier at your local grocery store, if you catch someone in the act of doing something that truly awes you, stops you in your tracks and makes you whisper “Wow!”, let them know what they just did. “People who practice gratitude have higher levels of happiness and psychological well being than those who don’t.”
Keep your eyes peeled this week. What will you experience that will be awesome? Who will you be able to thank for helping you to feel that way?