There are moments, and it is only a matter of a few seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony … A terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you … During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky
A few days ago, I watched with great interest a presentation by artist Benjamin Grant, sponsored by the Long Now Foundation. Among other topics, Grant discussed the feeling of awe, saying that “awe happens when you are exposed to something perceptually vast,” which may explain the circumstances in which one may experience awe, but not what awe is or what it feels like. It made me think of my own experiences of (what I believe to be) awe and the ways in which these experiences influenced my thoughts, my decisions, and consequently my life.
Considering that our languages have evolved over tens of thousands of years, and how central emotions are to our experience, you might expect that we’d have a clear and unambiguous way to define and describe such things as awe, but that is not the case. In fact, we do not even have precise terms for every variation of emotion that we are capable of feeling, let alone strict definitions. As it turns out, awe—like other emotions, and also like art—is something that cannot be faithfully described to one who has not experienced it. There is no expression, no description, no metaphor, no illustration, or any other means by which one person can fully communicate to another what it feels like to be awed, awestruck, or awe-inspired. To truly know the experience of awe, one must experience awe. But although the experience of awe cannot be accurately described, it can be explained.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines awe as, “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder …” A seminal work by psychologist Robert Plutchik, referred to as “the wheel of emotions,” consists of eight basic emotions—joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation—in various degrees of intensity. The model also defines other emotions as combinations of these basic eight. By this model, awe is described as a combination of fear and surprise. At their most intense, fear becomes terror, and surprise becomes amazement.
One thing all definitions of awe have in common, and that may not be intuitive, is that in addition to such things as surprise, wonder, and reverence, awe also involves an overwhelming sense of something ominous—dread, fear, terror. The word awe, itself, is derived from an Old Norse term—agi—meaning “freight.”
The reason that awe involves a degree of fear is that awe ensues out of experiences that force you to construct a new way of understanding something and how you relate to it, whether you previously believed you had such an understanding (now rendered untenable by the experience) or not. If the thing that awed you also challenged some belief or conviction, it will either affirm that conviction unequivocally, or serve as definitive proof that the conviction—perhaps even the foundations upon which you constructed a world view, a philosophy, an ideology, an understanding, a framework for actions and decisions, or even a way of life—is not what you thought it to be.
By sheer overwhelming power, the experience of awe robs you of the ability to maintain any semblance of cognitive dissonance, or to resort to motivated reasoning, about the thing that awed you—whether an experience, a view, a work of art, a written account, a person, a realization, an idea, a revelation, or a discovery.
I think that Grant’s definition of awe as the experience of being exposed to something perceptually vast, is lacking. This is because not all people are similarly impressed with vastness. Awe is a sense of encountering something that overwhelms your ability to dismiss it or to divert attention away from it—an experience so powerful that you are incapable of ignoring it. It forces you to acknowledge a new presence in your life, and to concede that there is no plausible way for you to rationalize the experience within the limits of knowledge and beliefs you held up to that encounter.
The experience of awe makes possible but two intellectually honest outcomes: despair, if the experience robbed you of something dear (hence the term, awful); or reverence, if the experience opened your eyes to meaning and beauty beyond what you thought possible, expanded your perception beyond its former boundaries, perhaps even set you free from a great burden. And the two are not mutually exclusive—at its most intense, an awe experience may elicit both despair and reverence.
Do not confuse something awe-inspiring with something that is merely inspiring. Inspiration is not the same as awe. Unlike inspiration, awe is not altogether (or at all) a pleasant sensation, and not necessarily an impetus to creative action. It may lift you to heights you did not know were possible, or it may render your perception of your life up to that point as meaningless waste.
When experiencing awe, your mind is confronted with incredible new knowledge and understanding, and it needs to reconcile this new knowledge into the way you perceive the world, and yourself. To be awed is to gain a new perspective—a vantage point you did not have before—from which to measure the world and the values of things, as well as the truthfulness of prior knowledge and beliefs. You are given new data points to feed into the equations by which your mind creates perceptions and understanding. Sometimes you are even given new equations.
Plutchik’s wheel of emotions suggests that the opposite of awe (a combination of fear and surprise), is aggressiveness (which the model defines as a combination of anger and anticipation), but I think that in a practical sense the opposite of awe is, in fact, cynicism (defined by the model as a combination of disgust and anticipation). I mention above those people who may be unimpressed with vastness. These people are cynics, and the worst among them are those that are not only dismissive of awe and other emotions, but who have so trained their minds as to be incapable of feeling them beyond a certain threshold, or at all.
To clarify, being cynical on occasion is considered a trait of intelligent people, or at least of people who score high on IQ tests. But intelligence is not one thing. The intelligence measured by IQ tests is not the same as what’s known as emotional intelligence, or social intelligence, or other forms of intelligence suggested by various models. If a person is only intelligent in the sense of scoring high on an IQ test but is lacking in other forms of intelligence, that person may be considered “smart,” but still be incapable of the richness of life as experienced by those in whom various types of intelligence are better balanced. The person I refer to here as a cynic is one whose relationship to the world is entirely devoid of intense feelings.
As awe involves fear, it is understandable that people will be motivated to avoid it, but those who avoid awe knowing that its other component is amazement, either do not understand the transforming power of amazement or are unwilling to pay its price. Cynics are people who, knowingly or unknowingly, punish themselves by favoring emotional safety and ease over vulnerability, and in so doing deny themselves not only pain and grief, but also the most beautiful things that a person may experience.
The irony of cynicism is that it does not only shield one from intense suffering, but also from such things as intense joy, reverence, and love. As such, cynicism is at best a weak defense, and in some ways no defense at all. The cynic diminishes things to a point where they cease to have emotional implications, and can thus be joked about or altogether ignored, no matter how elevated or terrible they may be. It is a means of attenuating the very sensations of being alive to a point where they become benign, and the living experience is diminished and impoverished. And there is no greater fool than a smug cynic, taking comfort in shields of indifference and humor, not realizing that they are in fact the walls of a prison in which one may live but not fully experience life.
Those who experienced awe, even terrible awe, often are inspired to the point of obsession to seek it again, and again. This is because, once experienced, any life devoid of awe seems inferior to, and undesirable in comparison with, any life that does, even if wretched. This is because any life devoid of awe, knowing what it is, can at best hope to substitute wretchedness for anxiety, envy, frustration, and regret. And where one may still find meaning and moments of joy in wretchedness, these things cannot be experienced (certainly not to the same degree) in a life consumed by relentless frustration, no matter how prosperous.
A cynic may live a life as if it had no purpose. Certainly we may argue about what purpose for a life may be considered worthy, but to do so misses the obvious, which is this: the purpose of life, before anything else, is to be lived. Therefore, the more intensely one lives, the more life’s purpose is fulfilled.