The word “awesome” has been tossed around so many times by so many different types of people that it’s become meaningless. Even the word “awful,” which can mean reverential, but rarely does, sounds like the disdainful, pilloried word it has become. Yet both words have their roots in “awe,” an odd-sounding word that has a history with the Old Norse languages. And now the New York Times reports that there’s a chemistry to feeling awe, that it’s more than just a word but a sensation that triggers an intricate chain of molecular behaviors that are actually good for us. It’s the latest among a slew of stories focused on the effort to measure happiness, perhaps an indication that happiness is so hard to come by for so many. It’s a story that appeared in the Times’ health section, but should have been published in its travel section, for travel is the business of peddling “awe.”
We feel awe, the body responds. Which got me thinking, in our plugged in, drone-like day-to-day, when do we feel awe? When did I last feel real, true awe, that kind of jaw-dropping, goose bump-inducing, eyes-wide-open moment when your body becomes extremely alert and still at the same time? It’s not something we get to feel enough during the daily grind of deadlines, appointments, what to make for dinner, when to bring the car in for maintenance. Reading this article made me crave it instantly, for awe is like a drug, a rush of endorphins you want again and again.
Watching my daughter sleep always brings a sense of awe; I still recall that moment we both napped together in the hospital bed. She was a day old. We were just getting to know another. I was getting used to her weight in my arms. Flowers had arrived and there was a gap between visitors. I held her and then I dozed off for who knows how long. Nearly eleven years later, I still feel that goose-bumpy giddiness watching her sleep. This would embarrass her, since tween girls are constantly embarrassed, but it’s true. I still look at her while she sleeps and think “Wow! I made you!”
If my daughter read this blog, she would be relieved to know, however, that most of my moments of awe tend to strike almost entirely outdoors and during vacations. The first time I finally saw Mount Fuji after three cloudy days in Tokyo. I could not take my eyes off it. Majestic sounds trite, but I don’t know what else to say except I felt the humility that is so lacking in America, yet so common in Japan. The dangerous, unguarded coastline that is Big Sur, a drive that made my stomach muscles squeeze so tightly that for two days afterward, I felt like I had performed a thousand sit-ups. The night sky in Taos, New Mexico, so thick with stars that the heavens looked tangled, as if the sky simply needed a giant comb, otherwise it would never be clear and blue and bright ever again. The Grand Canyon, despite all the tourists and signs and guard posts and gift shops, that when you just stood there looking out at its craggy reds and oranges and purples, waves of rock and all that geological history, you felt immense joy and relief; joy that the world could really be this bizarre-looking and amazing, and that you were briefly a part of it, and relief that your daily worries and anxieties were as meaningless as you had always suspected them to be, that you were barely a vowel or a consonant in the endless poem that is Earth, that were you just passing through like the rest of us.
Hiking the black lava fields in Iceland gave me that same feeling of awe as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Iceland is the perfect awe-inspiring reminder that Earth remains in charge; humans may be able to carve out a life on a cold, black rock, and not just survive, but thrive, but the volcanoes, the black stony beaches, the dozens of different types of moss clinging to the rocks, the wind-whipping cold, make it clear that again, you’re just passing through something far bigger, and far more powerful than you could ever hope to be. That impromptu visit from a pod of pilot whales that chose to prance alongside our boat as we were bobbing our way from one little island in the Galapagos to another. No organized whale tour. No tour guide. Just a bunch of white Americans getting sunburned on a boat while a bunch of curious pilot whales swam up to see what we were all about before dashing back off into their world beneath the surface.
Others might find awe in art, architecture, music, even other people, or, God forbid, celebrities. Looking back on it, it’s funny that connecting with the outdoors would prove so meaningful to me. I never thought of myself as a particularly outdoorsy person. I’m not very Gaia-like; I can’t pitch a tent, I’m obsessive about sunscreen, I hate bugs, I’m allergic to hornet and wasp stings and am currently receiving allergy shots to alter my immunity against them. I should be the one who finds awe in creative pursuits and indoor activities.
And yet, it’s the mysteries of ever-changing landscapes that wow me and confound me. News headlines would have us believe the world is constantly going to hell, and I don’t mean to diminish the senseless suffering and violence that mars us. But the world is full of contrasts. There is awe and beauty in both expected and unexpected places, and it’s worth seeking out. The quest may even be good for your health.
Mount Fuji and Big Sur and New Mexico’s night sky likely tweaked my body chemistry in immeasurable ways. Human beings crave beauty and magic and wonder, even at the molecular level, our bodies want this. I would be curious to know whether scientists could find out if recalling those moments of awe produced the same kind of biochemical reactions as the first experience had. Just writing this blog post, thinking about these places, has lifted my mood, so perhaps there is some evidence to what feels true? I’ll leave that to the researchers. I’m just a writer on the lookout for more awe.