Awe

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?

 

Sign Felled. A Post About Nothing.

This has been a killer week.

I have lost count of how many patients I’ve seen in two clinics and in EDs around the state of South Carolina for Telepsychiatry. There have been children out of control, threats to shoot, stab, hit, bite, run, rape, murder and commit suicide.

There have been too many notes to type, too many prescriptions to call in, too many records to review.

There have been justifications for drug abuse and justifications for abusing your wife. There have been people so psychotic that they didn’t even believe that they had a mental illness, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

There have been scammers and sweet talkers and threateners. There have been people I met for the first time and people I saw again for the first time in a decade. There have been people who professed love for me and people who couldn’t wait to get away from me.

There have been gratitude, happiness, sadness, regret, fear, irritability, guilt, anger, jealousy, worry, concern, disbelief, joy, anticipation, longing, love, hate, impatience, inquisitiveness, impulsivity, plodding, planning, perusing, predicting, fantasizing, and calculating.

I have used my brain, my iPhone, my fingers, my iPad, my hands, my MacBook Air, my feet, my scanner, my eyes, my camera, my ears, my earphones, a notebook, a pencil, a pen, paper, tape, boxes, folders, file cabinets, hard drives and flash drives.

I have driven a car. I have walked. I have flopped down flat, so tired that I thought I should set two separate alarms just to be sure. I have sat under a blanket. I have become intimate with the markings…markings…markings…markings on the belt of a treadmill. I have smelled the leather of the recliner and wondered why I don’t spend more time in that wonderful chair. I have ventured out on the porch, saying hello to the tiny feathered couple who occupy the nest above my rocker.

I have listened to music and podcasts, read a book, perused a paper publication, downloaded and read a PDF, held a real newspaper in my hands and smiled at the little known fact that ink smudges are still seen in the wild.

I have created.

I have destroyed.

I’m happy about the one, but not about the other. I’ll let you guess which is which.

I have felt-viscerally.

I have spoken-harshly.

I have cried-softly.

I have laughed-often.

I have remembered the past through songs and stories and pictures.

I have envisioned the future through day dreams and night dreams and plotting and planning and scheming and hoping and yes, even praying.

God.

Things are never tidy. Things are never neat. Things are never orderly.

Actually, things are just things.

Feelings are just feelings.

There will be more of all of it.

There will be less of some of it.

I’ll be here.

Maybe the next post will be about something.

When it writes itself, I’ll share it with you.

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Photo taken February 15, 2014, on the South Rim Trail of Tallulah Gorge State Park, Tallulah Falls, GA, USA, with an iPhone 5s.