A Shared Moment of “Wow!”
As the final notes of a public performance of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral music faded away, into the deep silence came an audible “Wow!” And that “wow” was from Ronan Mattin, a 9 year-old autistic boy attending the concert with his grandfather, who acknowledge Ronan is primarily non-verbal and later told WGBH Boston radio: “I can count on one hand the number of times he’s spontaneously ever come out with some expression of how he’s feeling.”
We all recognize spontaneous feelings of awe, experiencing even more awe when the recognition of it
is shared. I once saw a beautiful butterfly on a trail, experiencing my own “Oooh!” Another woman came up the trail and I was concerned that she might step on or miss the butterfly, so I called her attention to it. She also said “Ooooh!” She spoke only Japanese and I spoke only English, but the awe was shared and the recognition was shared.
Awe is the larger-than-life feeling we experience in the presence of something vast and extraordinary — the glory of a panoramic sunset, a star-studded night sky, a total solar eclipse, or the aurora borealis. It can also be inspired by the novelty, complexity, and harmony of a great creative work, such as the magnificence of the Taj Mahal, and by small things, such as the miraculous blooming of a flower.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead — his eyes are closed.
Awe is not a luxury. Experiencing awe promotes resilience by challenging our usual ways of seeing the world and our place in it. Awe promotes curiosity and exploration while simultaneously soothing the nervous system. It puts our day-to-day concerns into perspective and broadens our horizons; we feel more interconnected with others.
Exercise: Awe Practice
1. Immerse yourself in nature — a park, a garden, a forest — and notice everything as if seeing it for the first time. Bring a wide-eyed curiosity to every tree and blade of grass, every bend in the road, every cloud in the sky.
2. Visit a good museum or art gallery, or attend a top-notch concert or play. Let the expressions of others who have experienced awe transmit that experience to you. Notice shifts in your own perspective and sense of possibilities.
3. Review your own past experiences of awe: photographs from hiking in a national park or touring one of the great cities of the world, or the birth of your first child. This review can be especially helpful when the daily grind is getting you down: it reminds you that the world is still a magical place, full of mystery and potential.
4. Find an online video of an inspiring speech or performance, or describing a scientific discovery. Watch it with an attitude of openness and readiness to be inspired and uplifted, and to notice and savor the moments of awe when they happen.
Opportunities to experience awe are practically infinite. Enjoy the next opportunity to experience – and share – a “Wow!”