the Wonder and Awe in Everyday Living
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Life could change for the better, when it is
lived on a higher plane. Visualize yourself at the bottom of a grimy
pit. If you look down, all you can see is muddy ground. But the
moment you lift up your eyes towards the sky, your world suddenly
opens up and brightens with new possibilities. A perspective shift
can dramatically transform your view of life.
At the earthly level, life is almost totally
consumed by mundane concerns and endless struggles to stay alive.
A single mom is torn between a crying babe and a pile of dirty dishes.
A waitress tries to survive her shift without collapsing. A wife
cares for her husband with Alzheimer's disease 24/7. An office worker
tries to get his work done while coping with vicious office politics.
So many hardworking, decent people are harassed and oppressed by
forces beyond their control. For most people, life is a daily battle
with no end in sight.
In a broken world, things have a way of falling
apart in spite of our best intentions and efforts. How can one stuck
in a tar pit enjoy the thrills of peak experiences? Is it possible
to discover wonder and awe, when drowning in a raging sea of anxiety
But in a higher realm, far above the wreckage
of human strife, even a life filled with suffering, shame and guilt
can take on a mystical glow. Consider life at the God-forsaken Nazi
death camps - the barren and bleak camp ground, the blackened chimneys
from hell, the menacing presence of SS soldiers, and the stench
of death. Even in the midst of such unimaginable horrors and degradation,
Viktor Frankl (1984) was able to catch a glimpse of Heaven. Here
is how he described his experience:
Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing
in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing
shapes and colours, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate
grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on
the muddy ground reflecting the glowing sky. Then, after minutes
of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, "How beautiful
the world could be!" (p.60)
Yes, life could be beautiful, only if we learn
how to capture and multiply the magic moments of awe and wonder.
What is fleeting and transitory can be stored in an everlasting
river. We may never step into the same river twice, but we can relive
the same joy over and over again.
Pathways to the mountain
Even the thought of awe sends a gentle shiver
down my spine. You know the feeling when you stand before Grand
Canyon, witness the tidal waves of a tsunami, behold Michelangelo's
paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel or listen to Handel's
Awe is always a mixture of emotions, encompassing
reverence, fear and a sublime sense of marvel and amazement. You
may experience a tingling on your skin or a weakening of your knees.
You may feel a stirring deep in your soul. As long as the spell
lasts, you are transported from your mundane existence to a different
realm filled with surprises and possibilities.
The power of music
Let's begin with music, the invisible bridge
to Heaven. After George
Frederic Handel had completed the "Hallelujah Chorus", he exclaimed
to his servant with tears in his eyes: "I did think I did see all
Heaven before me, and the great God Himself!" Music had opened his
inner eyes for God's glory in spite of his blindness. Since 1742,
whenever Handel's Messiah is performed, the audiences automatically
rise to their feet as they hear the majestic, awe-inspiring "Hallelujah
When you listen to Beethoven's The Fifth Symphony,
the opening motif of four single notes, like the knocking of fate
at your door, arouses you from your apathy and invites you to plunge
into the heroic struggle through the dark valleys to the mountain
tops. Likewise, in his Ninth symphony, the opening movement is full
of horror and hope, and the last movement climaxes with the powerful,
moving chorale singing based on Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy".
In its essence and purest form, music is spiritual
and sacred. It can move your innermost soul and sweep you away from
your worldly cares into the divine presence. In such a transcendental
encounter, you cannot help but stand in awe, transfixed and transformed.
Viktor Frankl is correct, when he says that we can experience the
meaning of life and its many splendors simply by immersing ourselves
in great music.
The awe-inspiring creation
Nature represents the most common source of
awe, readily available to people everywhere. Humanity has a long
history of love-fear relationship with nature. Remember the recent
tsunami? Confronting nature inspires fear, reminding us of our own
insignificance and mortality. However, nature's majestic beauty
also instills in us unspeakable joy. When fear is wedded to adoration,
it gives birth to awe.
Kirk Schneider (2004), a humanistic psychologist,
emphasizes the importance of cultivating the human capacity for
humility and boldness, reverence and wonder before creation. In
his popular book Contact,
Carl Sagan (1985), a renowned astronomer, underscores the innate
human thirst for wonder and our need to listen to nature's stories:
"There's wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature's a lot
better at inventing wonders than we are" (p.178).
Philosophers, who explore the deeper meanings
of things, often exult in their discoveries of wonder. Immanuel
Kant (1997), in his landmark publication Critique
of Practical Reason, writes: "Two things fill the mind with
ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more
steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the
moral law within me" (p.160). Alfred North Whitehead concludes:
"Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic
thought has done its best, the wonder remains" (p. 46).
Personally, I think the poets are at their
best when they expose the naked soul of nature. From the pen of
William Blake come these memorable lines:
To see a world in a grain of
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
To Emily Dickinson, even a tiny
stone on a muddy road can ignite sparks of amazement and delight:
How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone
And doesn't care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.
Who can forget the magic words
of William Wordsworth, the self-proclaimed lover of Mother Nature?
He spied on "a violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye"
and spread the secret that "every flower enjoys the air it breathes!"
He can still infect us with joy with the following lines:
heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
We need to ask ourselves: Why are
we so blind to the dazzling beauty all around us? How can our hearts
remain unmoved by nature's awesome display? From the galaxies of
stars to the tiny snowflakes, and from the thunderous Niagara Falls
to the whispering streams, the cosmos is pulsing with creative energies.
How can we live as if the world is just a concrete box?
Wordsworth got it exactly right
when he wrote: "The Child is Father of the Man."
I remember those carefree days
of childhood - chasing a dragonfly through the tall grass, trying
to capture a butterfly perching on a flower, flying a kite against
the soft, blue sky, or listening to tap-dancing of raindrops on
treetops. There are a thousand memories of a child's play in nature's
playground; even one such memory is sufficient to revive a wounded
soul. Oh that we can restore a child's sense of wonder and become
fully attuned to nature's caprice.
Fearfully and wonderfully made
Perhaps of all creation, there
is nothing more incredible and awe-inspiring than the human being.
The Psalmist declares: " I praise you because I am fearfully and
wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well"
(Psalm 139:14). Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey (1997) have put
together a little book documenting the marvels of the human body,
and it is fittingly entitled Fearfully
and wonderfully made.
Even the most powerful supercomputer
cannot be compared with the human brain in terms of adaptive and
creative abilities. Consider the miracle of birth. A single fertilized
cell can develop into different kinds of organs and tissues with
their unique functions. It staggers our imagination that the millions
of information needed for reproducing the structure of the entire
human body are stored in the double-helix DNA strand.
But what is the most amazing quality
of human beings? Are we a biological marvel and the crowning achievement
of evolution? What set us apart from all the other animal species,
all with their own unique, amazing abilities? Are poetry and music
the sublime expressions of the human mind? Or are science and technology
the best measures of human ingenuity?
As I look into the mirror, all
I can see is a reflection of my physical self with its defects and
signs of aging. Where is the child in me? Where is my everlasting
dream? But behind the surface, I see God's image. The real me resides
in the innermost spiritual core, the center of my existence.
We are fearfully and wonderfully
made, because the clay has been blessed with a divine kiss. The
spirit of God has defined our special place in His vast cosmos.
He has endowed us with the capacity to do what only human beings
can -- to worship what is invisible, to search what is unknowable,
and to realize what is impossible. The greatest achievement of the
human spirit is that we can endure the pain, overcome the fear of
death, and sing the most beautiful music in the midst of suffering,
because our home is beyond the stars.
The hazardous and yet inspiring
human journey is beautifully captured by the following meditation
from Gates of Prayer:
We are like mountain climbers on a perilous
ascent. Often we stumble; sometimes it seems we may dash ourselves
on the rocks below. But there is hope, for dimly we have seen
a vision, and felt a presence, and faintly heard a voice not ours.
The blazing stars, particles too small to see, the smile of children,
the eyes of lovers, melody filling the soul, a flood of joy surprising
the heart, mystery at the core of the plainest things - all tell
us that we are not alone. They open our eyes to the vision that
steadies and sustains us. (p. 217).
A Return to the Divine source
The ultimate source of wonder
and awe belongs to the ineffable, unexplainable, incomprehensible,
mysterious, and sublime Holy One -- Creator of all things, the unshakable
foundation of moral laws, and the fountain of all lives.
I often wonder whether it is possible
for anyone to marvel at the creation without acknowledging the Creator.
Could we humble ourselves before Nature without bowing before its
Author? Hymns of praise naturally rose in his soul, as the Psalmist
observed the wonders of creation:
Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your
name in all the earth! When I consider your heavens, the work
of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in
place, what are mortals that you are mindful of them, the children
of mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8, verses 1, 3-4) The
heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work
of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after
night they display knowledge. (Psalm 19:1-2)
Once we learn to see things with
our spiritual eyes, we begin to see the world anew. What is commonplace
becomes sacred, what is mundane takes on new meaning and significance,
and what is unattractive reveals its hidden beauty.
When I go astray, God's invisible
hand will steer me to the right way. When I am at the end of my
rope, He will gently tap my shoulder and whisper: Fear not, for
am with you. How different the world looks, when our inner eyes
are opened to the sacred encounters. Elizabeth Browning's poem illustrates
such a dramatic transformation:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.
But awe is much more than a feeling
of reverence. It is also the source of wisdom and understanding.
According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned scholar of Judaism,
"Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine,
to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance,
to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple."
We can truly celebrate life regardless
of our circumstances, when we answer His trumpet call and respond
to His glory as we ought. As we cast our eyes heavenward, his wonders
will fill every space and thrill our hearts.
How do we cultivate a sense
of awe and wonder?
How do we restore a sense of awe
To begin with, we need to keep
our eyes and minds open to new possibilities. By adopting a posture
of humility and curiosity, we are ready to be surprised by moments
of awe and wonder.
When we confine human existence
to the five senses, and reduce life into something which we can
predict and control, we diminish our capacity for wonder and awe.
Our lives are impoverished to the extent that we ignore the transcendental
reality and higher levels of consciousness.
Secondly, we need to avoid the
trap of taking things for granted. By assuming that we already know
all the answers, we automatically tune out new discoveries and understandings.
Thirdly, our lives should not be
consumed by demands and desires. Remember that one does not live
by bread alone. Make time to listen to God's still, small voice
and appreciate Nature's artistry. Even in dark alleys strewn with
garbage and sandwiched between dilapidated buildings, a glimpse
of the glorious sunset can take our breath away.
Finally, we need to remember those
moments, when we were touched by a profound sense of wonder. For
John Izzoe (2004), "these mystical moments in touch with nature
are the things I remember most about being alive." For others, these
may be moments of their first love.
It will yield many happy returns
to cultivate the capacity for awe. When the rubber meets the road
and the going gets tough, you need a sense of awe to see you through.
When you hit rock bottom, and the burden is more than you can bear,
a sense of wonder can make your spirit soar. You may be surprised
that nothing can transform gloomy reality faster than viewing life
atop a sunny peak.
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