By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental
emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows
it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead,
a snuffed-out candle.”
Albert Einstein from The World As I See It
“Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only
are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is
a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel from Who Is Man?
Awe as Fundamental
Of all the positive spiritual emotions (including awe, faith, love, compassion, joy, gratitude, hope and forgiveness), it seems right to begin with awe. “Awe” celebrates the mystery and wonder of life, but, unlike wonder, it can also include an element of fear or dread; it is reserved for that which is more powerful than we are or aspects of life that we can never fully know or understand. And because the feeling of awe must strike or grab us, we are not really in control of our experience. We cannot will ourselves to feel awe, although we can establish certain conditions or take on certain attitudes which are more conducive to strengthening the power of awe in our lives.
Most of us would probably agree with Einstein that there is something “fundamental” about recognizing the mysterious in life and being able to stand in wonder. Being in touch with mystery connects us with a sense of limitless possibility, both within ourselves as well as in the larger world. To experience awe is to feel momentarily liberated, a recognition that there is something magnificent that has the power to transcend our daily cares and concerns–but it is not just “out there,” because we belong to it as well. We are part of it. When we feel awe we sense that we are operating from the place of our greatest wisdom and seeing ourselves and the world from the most enlightened and ultimately accurate perspective.
Mystery Is Where the Action Is
Descartes concluded that the presence of infinity was the basis for the proof of the existence of God. Another interpretation is to see infinity as proof that life is far bigger and more complex than we can imagine and as proof that actual life does not fit into the neat boxes or categories that we create to try to explain it. Whether we believe in God or not, the existence of infinity suggests that mystery and the unknown or unknowable is woven into the fabric of life–that there is a kind of magic to it, and that life cannot be reduced or simplified in the ways that some of our traditional scientific thinking might imply.
In a sense, being in a state of awe is the opposite from believing in any specific doctrine or explanation of life. Awe is about the encounter with mystery and our inability to ever come to terms with the infinite. When we think of it this way, mystery does not represent a problem that we should try to solve or conquer. Quite the opposite: mystery is where the action is. And knowing this changes everything. Because mystery pervades all of life, from the infinite vastness of open space to the infinite complexity of an individual atom or cell, awe becomes a rational response to any aspect of life that we choose to examine, depending upon our ability to be open to it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things.”