From my own experience, I would say this is true. For those of you who prefer empirical data and replicated studies, researchers assert that experiencing awe leads us to be more generous and altruistic; it brings people together and it reduces our tendency to filter information based on what we already know. Studies show that awe helps us develop humility and a sense of wonder and it diminishes our sense of self-importance.
[I wish we could make camping in a national park for a week a prerequisite for anyone holding public office. Or maybe make it a yearly requirement. Seriously.]
I think back to when I was working at Canyonlands National Park in my twenties. I was surrounded by breathtaking, natural beauty. And every day, it was my job to go out and hike the trails and notice things - notice what was in bloom, notice signs of animal presence, notice signs of human impact. Sometimes I would run into a visitor and say hello. Mostly, I just took in my surroundings. And awe was a daily experience.
I would sit on the slickrock under a vast, blue sky and look out over the canyons into the distance. You could see for forty miles in all directions. I felt so small and so connected to the wild beauty of our world. I have never felt so at peace as I did during that time.
Of course, it helped that I wasn’t also trying to raise three children and manage a household. I had just myself to be in charge of, with no distractions like computers or television and nowhere I needed to be rushing off to.
And while I no longer have a backyard of 300,000 acres of national parkland, and I do have responsibilities that keep me on the move and multi-tasking more than I’d like, I can still access the power of awe.
For me, awe arrives when I stop and notice the natural world around me. Whether it’s at a distance - the white capped mountains on the horizon, or close up - the intricate patterning in the bark of a tree - all of it is accessible to me if I stop and notice.
The poems of Mary Oliver are very good at calling me back to this kind of noticing, capturing the wildness, the resilience, the simplicity, the unforgiving nature of the living world. She seems to continually be reminding us, “Wake up, step outside, look!”
Our fellow humans inspire awe, too. I marvel at the tiny-ness of newborn toes and the firmness of a newborn grasp. Seeing my own three kids creating games together in the driveway, thinking I birthed those three people. Of course, in that case, it helps if I don’t get too close. It might ruin the moment when I realize they are having a farting sounds contest.
People working together, people creating art and music, awe connects us to something larger than ourselves.
The world is bigger than what I am going through.
Awe creates space on the inside, so that I can breathe more deeply, and perhaps hold on not so tightly.
When have you felt awe? What was the impact on you? How might you find time for awe in your life this week?
Jessica Curtis is a professional coach who helps people cultivate intention and live from a place of meaning and authenticity. If you think you could benefit from working with Jessica or want to invite her to work with your group, reach out to start a conversation.