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The Importance of Wonder and Awe - Part I

    One of the most important emotional foundations underlying the experience of optimum mental health is the capacity for experiencing wonder and awe. Whoops!  Does the expression evoke a slight sense of Déjà vu? Perhaps we are more acclimated in recent times to the idea of awe as used in the war-related cliché, “shock and awe.” This latter concept was originally developed by the Chinese military philosopher, Sun Tzu, and unfortunately promoted in recent military and corporate psychology. It represents human experience at its basest level.  This definition of awe is a distortion of what we truly need in order to have meaning and joy in our lives.  By contrast, the experience of wonder and awe represents the transcendent – the foundation for real happiness. 

    I believe, if we could measure it, 99% of the wonder and awe most of us experience in our lives would be determined to occur during our childhood years.  Year by year, it seems to diminish. Our literature and music is replete with the sorrows of trading the magic of wonder and awe for the practicality of adult responsibility.   

        In the words of Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore: 

This is the sadness I think many of us experience in relation to wonder and awe. As we get older, there is less and less that is new and surprising. We have all seen so much in our lifetimes. It is the curse of a good education and a sharp, perceptive mind that by middle age, you know a great deal and by old age, you have seen it all. Sure there is more for us to know than we can ever take in, but the experience of surprise comes less and less. 

Indeed, it may be that the experiences we crave most as we wander through the maze of adulthood mostly can be summed up as the pursuit of wonder and awe – whether through fulfilling work, a loving family life, meaningful religious experience, or even through drugs, wild living and fast cars. Compared to the awe and wonder of those childhood years, for many of us, something feels terribly missing.   

Capacity does not have to be lost 

    Sadder yet, many of us live our lives under the mistaken notion that the capacity for the experience of wonder and awe is gone forever.  This is so not true, as we shall discover.  When we resurrect that magic of our childhood – when we recognize and fulfill our capacity for the experience of wonder and awe, our lives will become filled with meaning and joy. 

   Think of your most special memories experienced as a child.  How many of them involved the occurrence of wonder and awe? What was your most recent experience with these emotions? 

    My most vivid early memories all seem to be associated with the sense of wonder and awe. I remember how green and beautiful the world seemed – especially as seen from above when I was flying. I loved the ecstasy of rising skyward while watching the lush earth drop away until it transformed itself into an infinite toy-land. Easter was an awesome experience, filled with sensory and transcendent wonders that actively opened the conduit between this world and the next. I remember there were times fresh out of toddlerhood when I would stand outside past sunset and look up at the gathering stars. Feeling immersed in the grandeur of the Universe, looking out from my tiny body, I felt simultaneously homesick and yet intimately connected with everything as far as I could see.  

Recently, one of my now-adult daughters visited from California and all of our family was together again for a time.  Watching our two daughters talking and laughing together again evoked a succession of memories, seeing them together as different ages, back through time to their toddlerhoods. (I always wondered why my parents got teary at times . . . now I understand.)

Wonder and awe at the profundity of life – how have we come to insulate ourselves from such powerful emotions?  How does the near absence of these emotions impact our lives as individuals and collectively as a society? 

Why it matters 

First, let’s explore the psychological importance of these emotions to our wellbeing.  Long before psychology was a recognized discipline, Rene Descartes, in his Passions of the Soul, placed wonder as the first of all passions, before desire, hate, love, sadness and joy. He saw wonder as primary to other emotions because it is a surprise of the soul that occurs prior to comparison and judgment of the experience; also it has no opposite emotion. Finally, wonder is an element in most other passions as the source behind our being emotionally moved.   

Early in the last century, William James explored trait distinctions between the “healthy minded” versus the “sick soul” in his classic psychology of religion work.  His descriptions of healthy minded individuals were consistent with high experiences of wonder and awe, given their perceptions of the world as a manifestation of divinity, with everything in life as being beautiful or good, and their experiencing the world with grateful admiration.  Those with sick souls, by James’ definition, saw the world as full of evil, temptation and decay, where divinity and salvation exist elsewhere, such that they were not emotionally responsive to events that otherwise might evoke wonder and awe. 

In more recent times, Abraham Maslow’s research revealed wide variation among individuals in their openness to peak experiences. He redefined “two religions of mankind” as being the “peakers” and the “non-peakers.” Contrasting the two, Maslow said, within any religion or culture there are individuals who, “have private, personal, transcendent, core-religious experiences easily and often and who accept them and make use of them, and, on the other hand, those who never had them or who repress or suppress them and who, therefore, cannot make use of them for their personal therapy, personal growth, or personal fulfillment.”

 What are the consequences of living life below the threshold of wonder and awe? One of the greatest 20th Century theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”

Continued: The Importance of Wonder and Awe - Part II

Granville Angell   © 8/2006

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC, invites you to submit questions for his column. (Your identity will be kept confidential.) Email him:  angell(at)transitions-counseling.com, call his private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services at 704-276-1164;  visit his web site: www.transitions-counseling.com, where you can read prior articles .