Seeking: The Awe
By Jane Tawel
January 27, 2020
We daily are ambushed by both dire and dreary feelings and we constantly let our minds ramble over the causes, symptoms, and cures of things like irritation, stress, exhaustion, anger, and fear. We seek out morsels of pleasure and content ourselves with our views of what bring us a modicum of happiness. We convince ourselves we are growing personally by spending time on “lunches and brunches” and other rather runty examples of those actions that we think connect us with other humans. We have more expendable everything to create exciting experiences for ourselves, but we far too often lack that which most separates the Beauties amongst us from the Beasts — we lack awe.
There is much to be awed by throughout the planet and we can appreciate nature as awe-inspiring from sunrise to sunset and even into the dark hours of a starlit night. I, as hopefully any one reading this, look often -at least once a day, and hopefully many times a day, to the natural world for awe-inspiring moments and experiences. But I have found that there is a vast difference between being “wowed” by nature, i.e. that which has been created by either a creative God or by an evolutionary lucky happenstance, depending on your worldview; and being “wowed” by human creative endeavors or by artistically and often communal accomplishments. Being stunned into speechless admiration by Nature is one of the great gifts the planet can (still) give us, but being impressed by other humans is a gift we give to ourselves and to each other.
So, while we are often anxious and periodically content in relationship to other human beings, we rarely, if ever, are ambushed by an actual feeling and experience of complete Awe because of other human beings. Moreover, we rarely feel it is both our right as mere worker-bes or our desperate need as beings with what one might simply call “souls”, to actively pursue being awed. And consequentially, because we do not seek out awe, do not plan ways of being awed, or anticipate a friend’s or stranger’s random acts of awesomeness; we rarely feel it possible to be ourselves, either awesome or awe-inspired.
I sometimes have to be metaphorically hit upside the head with awe. Sometimes I might be reading something just to relax or watching something to veg-out, and I am suddenly attacked by a gorgeous metaphor or an image that is both lovely and true. Awe can be humorous or serious, planned or random. Sometimes, I know I have scheduled to go view something that will be amazing, something at a museum or performance; or I am anticipating amazement at a concert; and yet, like the demons of apathy often do, my “feelings” tempt me not to go. I am suddenly quagmired in a pit of ennui, while a sort of undefined dread comes over me and I just want to lazily hunker down and introverted-ly avoid any connection to genius or glory or amazing artistic accomplishment. Sometimes I want to hide from engaging with awe.
But every single time that I am either engaged with awe or surprised by awe, I am changed — I am less just me and also more fully me than I have ever been before. I am more hopeful and more determined to be more of what humans can be, to enjoy more of all humans have been, and to dream of what humans will be — or could be, if we all give over to being part of humankind’s eternal quest for awe.
This sense of being inspired and “wowed”, can, of course, happen sometimes if I allow myself the pleasure of walking around and being in the creation of the natural world, but mostly nature brings me joy, pleasantry, charm, and happiness, rather than awe; and while all these feelings and experiences are very, very, very good things, they are not awe. The moments when awe really socks my solar plexus, are the moments when I see or listen to or read those creations by godlike humans that we simply call, “artists”. When I stand in front of a painting that makes a brand new world from pigment and pulp, or listen to a human-being play a human being’s composition of scales and notes and stops and pauses, producing magic with nothing more than string or wood or pieces of twisted metal called horns, or when I read a poem or novel that takes symbols and smudges that we call letters and words, and transforms those symbols into art; why that is when I experience veneration, wonderment — stupefaction, even — at the ability of other human beings to create. That is when I recognize that it is only we who can create in me something that can only be described as awe.
I am reminded of my lack of, but conversely my excruciating need for experiencing awe every time I go to a concert, especially if it involves an orchestra or group of musicians. Hearing with amazement, what humans can create, shocks me, and I will be honest, I don’t always like to be shocked — until I am. Because when I am awed, it is not like being in a house of horror where scary things jump out to shock me. Being awed is like suddenly waking up to realize your soul’s battery has been dead for a long time, and something awesome just attached some jumper cables to your soul, restarting your life’s engine, recharging you, so your whole life can work well again. We spend so much time straining and pushing our lives along, like broken down vehicles meant to stick to the side of the road. We keep our heads down, straining at the back of the bumper, and don’t notice the things and people out there, also on the journey, but who somehow managed to have attached their terminal terminals to the cables that bring energy and life to human batteries. Awe-inspiring moments should stop us from pushing our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits along the rutted roadsides — stop us long enough to get a jump-start. Awe should free us from only staring ahead bleakly, trying to get to Point Z, while slogging along on the tedious treadmills we imprison ourselves on. Finding awe should allow us to step out of the confines of time and space, into the freedom of transcendent joy and the glory of what we simply call the human spirit.
Being in a particularly awe-inspired place and time, and yet out of place and time while listening to or observing great art, makes even little old me, feel momentarily transcendent –superhuman, even. I am made more whole, and yet a part of something bigger than myself,with my connection to and recognition of the greatest of human beings, the past and current “gods of the ages” — gods like Mary Cassatt or Langston Hughes or Francisco Goya or Vincent van Gogh or Erik Satie or Ludovico Einaudi or Tomaso Albinoni or J.R.R. Tolkien or E.M. Forster or Toni Morrison or……oh, there is much and many to be awed by. I count it as one of God’s great miracles, that She has saved so much of her children’s great creations from annihilation by those who prefer useful pedantry. I am thankful to believe in the type of Awesome Creator who with love, keeps Her children’s great masterpieces on the earth’s metaphoric artistic Refrigerator. I am grateful for the miracles that have protected and preserved so much surviving brilliance, created with love by those who often died in poverty and obscurity, at least as the world might define poverty and obscurity as, but who have survived the fads of time, to live forever in the souls of human beings the world over.
I have been awed by an eclectic array of artists, from Vivaldi’s scrumptious sonnets of symphonic skillfulness to the modern, striving composers who play with sound like a child who just broke into Mother’s kitchen cabinets of pots and pans and wooden spoons. I have gawked in wonderment at visual creations standing like sentinels against uglification, paintings and drawings glowing like lights in the dark, stretching from the shores of Santa Monica to the streets of Madrid. I am awed by the sheer brilliance and “other-worldliness” of a person who can “think in orchestra” or can “speak in chalk and watercolor”. But I am also so often, completely over whelmed by the artists who play music, either, individually and communally — the flautists, the oboe and violin players, the purveyors of piccolos, and cello connoisseurs; the strummers of snares and tooters of trumpets, so brash in their warnings to not ignore awe. I am awed by those great individuals who have created masterpieces of one genre and another, but I thrill to the sounds of those who together, join their talents and create awe, joining together with those throughout the ages, marching as one in the tide of humanity, emerging from nothingness and nobodies to become saints with a little help from wood and string and metal and smudges and voice.
Awe is defined in Merriam Webster as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime”. The archaic definition of awe is: “dread, terror; the power to inspire dread”. And when pure awe arrives, it is as sudden and yet as deeply entrenched into one’s being as that feeling of dread you might feel before going onto the operating table. Because being awed by another human being creating something profoundly personal and yet universal, being awed by another human making art come alive in the very air you breathe, feels much as it might feel to look in the face and observe the hands of that great physician or specialist that you have agreed to let cut you open and perform upon you a life-saving procedure. Willingly exposing myself to awesomeness is like opening up my chest and exposing my heart to a masterful, brilliant person that offers to perform an experimental surgery on my soul. Seeking out awe is like seeking an experience that I know will rip out the cancerous tumors of bad feelings and useless thoughts that have been growing within me, the parts of me that make me feel “awe-ful” and after ripping them out, awe will try to replace all the diseased dead cells and decaying garbage eating away at me, with new organs of hope and joy, delight and wonderment, beauty and glory and yes — Merriam Webster got by the end — awe will replace all the ickies or mundane with the “ sublime and sacred”. And I will, after I recuperate from the shock of the operation by the surgeon of creative awe, feel my own self, to be just a bit more “awe-some”.
Awe replaces bile with beauty, exchanges the trivial for the transcendent, changes out the second-rate for the sublime; and destroys the life-sucking succubi of the profanely common with the soul-resurrecting sacred.
And when we feel awe, for even just a wee while, well, then, we, too want to march with the others. We, also, want to help keep alive and thriving all the awe-inspiration that other human beings have been and can be. When we personally experience what human beings are capable of creating with just a bit of wood and string, or words and ink, or paint and canvas, then we want to make sure we do our part to rid the world of banality and bile, and to preserve the good and kind and awesome and transcendent in the world, keeping it with the hope that it will one day awe the children.
When we are personally awed, even if we will never experience being on the other end of awe-ing someone else, we should at least want to make very, very sure that the children can some day look up from their devices and be immersed — even just for an hour or two — into those realms of artistic accomplishment and awesome experiences that are better than any virtual reality and more healing than any mantra and more strengthening than any protein shake. To preserve a world for future awe, is to be one of the marchers, one of a community of those who march forward towards awe and joining the marchers, we protect the rear flanks from death and encourage the strong, young ones out front to run into the battle waging against human mortality caused by meaninglessness.
To be awed is to die momentarily to our own individual mundane-ness and to the dreary dystopian forces that can entomb us, and to suddenly awake into the possibility of a utopian, magical dream-state that was unimaginable in those few moments preceding the experience of awe. To experience awe is like experiencing a death that is followed by a life that is so much better than we could dream imaginable; to riff on one of the greatest, William Shakespeare, experiencing awe is “a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep, perchance to dream… what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”
Ah, yes, to experience awe, we must hit the pause button, step off the assembly line, look for the roadside jumper cables; and we must anticipate what we cannot anticipate, dream of what we have not yet dreamed, and live what we have not yet lived. Great art of all kinds, allows us to live and live and live again and again into what humankind has created to be an eternally preserved awesomeness. To do so, however, we must take the noose to our sense of boredom, and throw out our lariats into the fields of artistic accomplishments, lassoing for our own soul’s feeding, those creatures of creative spirit that romp and play in the worlds where awesomeness roams.
The Naturalists and Transcendentalists of the Nineteenth Century believed, much like Anne Franke would later believe against all odds, that individual human beings were “basically good at heart”. They taught us many things, mostly through their art, about how to “transcend” all the many and varied things that try to pull us down to sprawl in the mud and crawl in the dirt, rather than climb the pinnacles of human awesomeness and soar with the angels and sing like the birds. Writers from the Nineteenth Century like Emerson, Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott, or composers like Charles Ives and Stephen Foster, and painters like Whistler or Cassatt, all believed that both Nature and Mankind were meant for something both more substantial and more transcendent than mere productivity. They were awed by the “awesome” around them in nature, like lakes and grass, and the twinkling stars in the vast space of the “heavens”, but they also were finely attuned to the awesomeness of all matter, all molecules, and most poignantly and profoundly, the awesomeness in every single man and woman and child. They created because they believed that every single human being who lives, has a deeply seated need to exist for reasons more spiritual and numinous than for merely the useful or economically viable.
Artists, such as the poet Walt Whitman, sought out awe everywhere, in everything and everyone. Rather than sit back and wait for awe to come to him, Whitman ran headlong towards it. Like a one-man Signal-Corps army, sending out carrier pigeons, Whitman sent out his heroic fliers to carry the message that there is hope for salvation from the enemies who battle our souls with meaningless. We must all be vigilantly on the look-out, small, yet sacred sentinels scanning the world for soul-saving awe. By looking at the world and layering marvel on top of the mundane, human beings transcend even the sticky confines of logic and practicality; and through awe, of those who create and those who simply stand and applaud, we remove the barriers that are imposed even to our immortality.
Whitman has a poem that is not perhaps as well-known as his long, famous ones, and which is often, I think, misinterpreted as dark or depressing. I find it both hopeful and convicting about how to live a life well-lived and what the deeper meaning of being human is. For me, this poem is anything but depressing, but rather a teaching moment on a way to make the small things in the world, and the small people in the world, like myself, something “worth keeping”, something worth treasuring.
“A Noiseless, Patient Spider”
By Walt Whitman
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
When I am trying to define something, I always like checking in with the Urban Dictionary. The Urban Dictionary always riffs on meanings in much the way real people do, so to one-up itself with new-ness, The Urban Dictionary proclaims that there is something called “The Awe”. “The Awe” is defined as: “the coolest person you know. Most likely the living incarnationof the mighty god of awesomeness. Often this person will have an optimistic perspective on life and be constantly flocked by the worshippers that the Awe has used his/her mind powers to befriend.”
There are many artists that I think of as “The Awe”. I, as a lover of the written word, think of people like Charles Dickens, Feodor Dostoevsky, Arthur Miller, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, and Angelou Maya, to name only a few among a host of others. And people shouldn’t have to be dead to be awe-inspiring. I have been awed by the writing of Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood, the essayist Anne Lamott, and, only just recently deceased, the poet Julia Esquivel. I follow a contemporary, and as yet, unsung potter who goes by the name “The Alchemist”; and of course, Ludovico Einaudi is, in my opinion, one of the greatest currently living Awes. I consider Joni Mitchell one of the most significant poets and musical geniuses of all time and definitely one of “The Awes”. But while I may experience a fiddle player or a composer as individuals who are my idea of “The Awe”; the glorious thing about awe, is not everyone experiences it in the same way or venue. We may ebb and flow in our lives of experiential awe. And when it comes to community-created awesomeness, while I consider a bluegrass band or an orchestra pure musical genius, my son thinks of the communal creations of a band called “Breaking Benjamin” as awe-inspiring, and my daughter assures me that “Of Monsters and Men” are those artists who incarnate “The Awes”. But — no matter where you think The Awes reside or how you find awesomeness to manifest itself in the world we live in, it is vitally important that you seek and find awe. If has been a long time since you have sought out someone or some human creation that you can define as, “the mighty god of awesomeness”, otherwise known as “The Awe”, please, do not delay your quest any longer. I can not tell you where or in whom you will discover awe, only that at crucial times or perhaps at all times, it may be the only thing that will save your very life from meaninglessness.
But please don’t confuse the awesomeness of the Human Spirit with the awesomeness of Nature. Please don’t arrive at Heaven’s door with only stunning photos of your trip to The Great Barrier Reef or a lovely memory of your short hike in the local mountains. The natural world inspires us to believe in the greatness of God, but only other humans can inspire us to believe in the greatness of ourselves.
My daughter, my son, and I may differ on the outside details, but inside, where it matters, we are all doing the same thing. We are, like Whitman’s spider, throwing out “filaments” into our world, trying to make sure that our soul-strands catch onto something sure and solid and latch onto meaning more real than today’s fleeting realities. We are all trying to find those bigger, awesome things out there, that will secure our webs, and make us feel at home in the universe. We are looking for The Awes that are human beings who hardly seem like they can be real, but are in fact, more real than our deepest disappointments in other humans can be; those who even momentarily transcend the normal to become an eternal real. We enter the world of awe much like a beautiful dream, led by those like us and yet, like what we often only dream we could be; and finding that which is awe-inspiring, can become a new reality, as only soul-dreams that become substance can be.
We all seek awesomeness with the blind, groping faith that our human filaments send out, shooting out from our souls, like spiders’ silky strings, seeking for something out there with not much more strength than a bug’s life and sometimes a small hope and a prayer. And the glorious truth of it all, is that by seeking, we will find; and we will in fact, attach our lives to those things that transcend our own small, grey lives. We are each just muddling through the hard work of making a web to house our own small lives and wee dreams, but by tethering ourselves to “The Awes”, we become a part of the whole, and in that lies true awe.
Walt Whitman believed that by sending forth enough threads from the soul out into the awesomeness of the world, every single person could be tied to all that is best in the vast Universe; every one could be “The Awe”. I’m not sure I can believe that to the extent the Transcendentalists did, but just like the spider who “launched forth filament, filament, filament out of itself”, I am trying to look up and around me for the best and strongest of the human spirit, to anchor myself to; and to send out of myself strong connections to awe. And some days I can actually stop my spinning long enough to admire the filaments that have created the amazing web-home that I, (with a lot of help from time spent in love and adoration of The Awes), have managed to create for myself around my very own human soul.
Without its web, the spider is a small, grey crawling thing, easily crushed by the unseen awesomely fearsome and powerful humans that seek only to control and own and to destroy. The soul too, can remain just a small grey, crawling thing unless it is moored by its attachments to those things much greater and sturdier and more lasting than itself. The soul can be easily squashed by anxiety or anger over those things that roam through our days, throwing shadows against the walls of the world, and appearing much larger and more important than they really are. When you think about it, comparing a dictator’s accomplishments to a Beethoven or a Matisse or an Eminem is laughable. What does a ruler leave behind if he doesn’t care for the souls of his subjects? But, ah! that which is left behind by those who make miracles from mud will remain forever, spreading out in the collective soul of humankind like endless waves to endless shores.
Unless we secure our souls against meaningless through awe-inspired strongholds, we can be eaten up by so many unknowns out there, living afraid and unguarded against the wily wolves of woes that prowl ravenously around the perimeters of the human spirit’s sheepfold. There are many people who will try hard and succeed in creating a false sense of awesomeness — that’s what bullies and Goliaths and unscrupulous rulers have always done — take fear and try to masquerade it as awe. We must, like little Davids and clever, imaginative Scheherazades, secure our outposts, gather our weapons, and toil into the night, and thereby, save all that is good in us. We must defeat those who would destroy awe through manipulation and the cheapening of each individual life, by picking up the small pebbles and spinning out the stories that will save our souls from meaninglessness. We may lose some days’ battles but we must win the war against the dystopian forces that think we are fit only for treadmills and as fodder for their own self-serving greed. The web-home that today protects my soul will be swept away with the Broom of Time or by Hands of Violence, if I do not actively, pursue that which will remain. Like the artistic arachnid, I must moor my being to the things that are greater than myself, tethering my life with purposeful connection to The Awes of this world, and with a passionate determination to be Awed — with a capital A.
I wrote an essay a while back entitled “Suddenly, God” and I was reminded of it when I recently sat again in my towards-the-back seat in an auditorium somewhere in Southern California. I once again felt pleasantly depleted and wrung out from a few hours of awesomeness, as I listened to the closing notes of the symphony I had just been swooned by. The closing notes of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, viscerally reminded me of what I had felt when I last heard Ludovico Einaudi and his supporting group of musicians. Einaudi is an artist who plays among musical notes like the gods might play among the stars. Yes, I can be made to feel all sorts of wonderful, and humanly valuable things like happiness and contentment by listening to music on my stereo or sitting in a chair reading a book or spending time watching performers on my small screen. I can feel a certain great sense of awe by gazing at a mountain or by walking along the ocean’s shore. But it is truly ‘awesome’, when I witness and am a part of something that humans do that no other animal can do. And while I realize that time is short, and days fleeting, we must always make enough of our time and enough of ourselves to stand in awe before The Awes. We must send out our souls’ small strands towards what will be, if anything is, eternal. Because when I am in the audience of The Awes, I realize that if there is a God, who is worth believing in, then He is a God who thinks because of this — if only because of This! — humanity is worth keeping. Forever.
Humans have always wanted the same things, gone after the same things, longed for the same things. And though our world has in many ways become more -awe-inducing, it has too often obfuscated the awe-inspiring. It is not the achievements in technology that we use to protect us from engaging with those around us that will tether us to our shared home on this globe. It is not the job or career, nor vast hoarded globs of wealth that can ever salvage us from obscurity, no matter how famous or secure we believe our toiling has made us. Our web-homes are gossamer when compared to the durability of the beams holding up the universe. It is not the power we use to destroy, nor the shallow daydreams we habitually misuse to anesthetize ourselves, that can ever truly inspire us to greatness as a species or enlarge our souls as individuals. It is only the experiences in our glimpses behind the curtain of eternity and the communal sharing of that which awes even the best of us, that are awesome enough to tether the filaments of our souls to meaning. God’s or Mother Nature’s creations may instill reverence, but only human creations can inspire awe.
I grew up, met friends, dated and married long before internet dating, online match-making, and ‘Bumble-ing’ for friends were things. But there have always been creative means for people to express who they are and what they long for; ways for people to try to find friends or like-minded folks, ways for singles to find mates and find love. Some kind of public forum has always been around, when all else may have failed, that allows someone to proclaim to the greater community out there, the longings of his or her heart’s desire. There have been ads in newspapers, post-its stuck onto laundromat walls, sharpies used on bathroom stalls, or colored pens inscribing in yearbooks; there have been cards thumb-tacked to grocery store information boards, and banners pulled by small aircraft; and I imagine, there were once wishful smoke signals sent out across the plains, proclaiming Brave Buck’s desire to find a Young Elk. But no matter the means, definitely human beings have always found a way to communicate to strangers, their yearnings to connect something “in here” to someone who is “out there”. There is always risk involved, and great reward promised to those who will answer the call.
Throughout the ages, these messages expressing someone’s unrequited need, may be communicated by different means to the world, but they have always ended exactly the same way; with a word or phrase or symbol that means the same; they end with something that has the same definition as to search. We may describe ourselves differently, we may use different technologies, but we always want to find the same thing, and so we always end our stated quest with the same, one word: seeking.
We are seeking creatures. We always end, where we really have always begun, by seeking something that we just know in our very heart of hearts, in the depths of our souls, is out there some where, in someone. Like newborns rooting around for Mother’s breast, we die, still hungrily searching the heavens for a God who awes us, but is like us enough to love us. We are all just sending out filaments, waiting for what we seek to appear. And when it does — If it does — we will be awed.
There is an old myth that has God looking at Her own very awesome creation — a human life — and proclaiming that “man is not meant to live alone”. No one person can create awe by him or herself. There must always at a least be an audience of one, to create awe. Awe is never an individual pleasure but always in some way, age after age, awe is a communal experience. Ultimately, the wondrous thing is that there is no “AWE”, without, “WE”.
Post to the Universe:
“One insignificant, slightly personable, but definitely damaged human being; full of creative longing, but with no notable or particular skills. Great audience for your talents and cheerleader for your individual journey. Rather grey and spider-like, but with plucky hope in the filaments that bind us together.
Seeking: The Awe.