The Power of Awe
Updated: Mar 1, 2022
John O’Donohue was a priest and philosophical theologian from County Clare, Ireland. His faith was influenced by his Celtic heritage and included the belief in God’s presence everywhere within creation. This doesn’t mean trees, rocks, water, and other natural features are literally God. Rather, the spiritual quality of these things reveals and connects us to God. A place where someone feels particularly close to the Divine is known as a thin place, where the boundary between seen and unseen, physical and spiritual, becomes so thin that the two connect.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is a thin place for me. I’ve been going there since 1995. Sometimes I go just for fun, other times for a personal retreat or to mark a milestone in my life. My favorite time to go is winter. It’s when the sky is filled with tens of thousands of snow geese. It’s also the time of sandhill cranes. They are amazing birds. Cranes form lifelong pair bonds and stay in family units throughout the year. One of the ways they maintain these bonds is by vocalizing together. Bosque del Apache is always noisy when the cranes are there. You can hear their vocalization in this video.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I like to spend time outside, hiking and birdwatching. I’m fortunate to have a brother who lives in Anchorage, AK, which gives me opportunities to explore the surrounding area. I hiked the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park during one fall visit. It’s 4.1 miles each way, 8.2 miles roundtrip. The kicker is it gains over 3000 feet of elevation in those 4.1. miles! For me, this is a challenging hike. It was hard going up, but I did OK. The expectation of seeing the icefield kept me moving forward. The problem was when I turned around to go down the mountain. My legs quickly became noodles and weren’t cooperating. I feared I wouldn’t be off the mountain by nightfall.
Then, I heard something. For a moment I was confused. It was like encountering someone from work in the grocery store and needing a minute to put their name and face together in the unexpected place. I heard the sound on the mountain, and it took me a moment to name it. Then I realized what it was: sandhill cranes. I looked up, and flocks of cranes were flying over the icefield on their fall migration southward. I stood there in awe. I was instantly in a thin place. I felt connected to something greater than myself and was transformed. I still was intimated by the landscape, but I also was energized. It gave me the courage and strength to do what I needed to do. This is the power of awe.
Awe gives us courage and strength to keep going, even when we’re afraid and don’t know if we can do what needs to be done. That’s the situation I think many of us are in today, when we look at the ecological and social injustices around us. The complexity of the problems seems overwhelming. It’s easy to fall into fear and despair.
In the northern hemisphere, December can be a particularly challenging time. The days are short, and the nights are long. For millennia, winter was when people hoped and prayed their harvest would be enough to sustain them until next summer. In some years, it was a time of hunger. It still can be a time of hunger for people who must choose between heating bills and food. Even with enough to eat, winter can be emotionally difficult, as the shorter period of daylight brings the depression of seasonal affective disorder for some. Like in days of old, winter is still a time of flu and sickness, and this year we have the never-ending coronavirus pandemic.
Given the challenges of this time of year, it’s understandable that people developed winter traditions to mark the time. One of the oldest is the winter solstice celebration, when people passed the longest night of the year with festivities and welcomed the start of the sun’s return. As Christianity spread across Europe, Christians selected this time of year to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Although based on a lunar calendar, Hanukkah also falls near the winter solstice, which may have been an intentional decision in Jewish history.
These winter traditions started when people did not have the scientific understanding of the world that we now have. Nor did they have technology to control their environment, or the belief many hold today, which is that technology can solve the world’s problems. But maybe they had something else we need today: a sense of wonder.
Wonder is at the heart of the winter traditions. The solstice celebration reminded people of the wonder of new life that was preparing itself within the frozen soil. With Hanukkah, the Jews wondered at the miracle of one flask of oil being enough to light lamps for eight days. With Christmas, Christians wondered at God becoming human in the form of a baby. And all these things happened while people were afraid, be it fear that they’d have enough food to get through the winter, or fear of illness, war, or other perils of their times. Our ancestors who developed the winter traditions intuitively knew that creating wonder can lead to awe, and there is power in awe.
Researchers at the Greater Good Science Center study awe, and their findings are fascinating. Physically, awe elevates heart rate and literally gives us goose bumps and the sense of having chills. Studies show a correlation between people who report feeling more awe and lower levels of a protein called cytokine in our immune system. It’s a marker of chronic inflammation related to stress. Psychologically, people who report feeling awe also report feeling they have more available time, an increased sense of connection with others, and an overall more positive mood. Underlying all the findings, there are two things people consistently report when feeling awe.
(1) It’s outward looking. Their attention is shifted away from themselves; much like the cranes shifted my attention away from my weak legs and fears that I couldn’t complete the hike.
(2) They feel connected to something greater than themselves and others, to something Divine. They’ve tapped into a source of strength outside of themselves, like I did on the Harding Icefield Trail.
Research shows one more thing about awe that I think is important. People frequently respond to feeling awe by being kinder and more generous to others. These traits seem to be in short supply these days. Cultivating our sense of wonder, and the feeling of awe that comes from it, may be what we need here at the end of 2021.
Where have you felt awe? Maybe it’s in the natural world, as is so often the case for me. I’ve also experienced awe playing in concert bands and orchestras, when suddenly, everything comes together in a mystical way. The music becomes more than the sum of the parts played. In that moment a tingle literally goes up my spine. Awe can be found in many of the creative arts. It’s felt when we hear music, read a poem, or see a painting, and it touches something deep inside of us, prompting tears to well in our eyes. Some people experience awe by seeing the world through the wonder of their children or grandchildren. Here’s an online quiz to help you gauge where you are in developing a sense of awe.
The world becomes a thin place when we see it with a sense of wonder. Interpreted with a sense of wonder, common things such as a lit oil lamp or a swaddled baby inspired awe in our ancestors. What quiet miracles might be happening in the common things of our lives, if only we saw them with a sense of wonder? My holiday wish for you, in the words of John O’Donohue’s blessing, “For Presence,” is that “you may experience each day as a sacred gift, woven around the heart of wonder,” even amid, and maybe especially because of, the fears of our day. May this sense of wonder bring awe into your life. And may the power of awe bring you strength and courage to face the challenges ahead in 2022.