May you be awful this year

Witnessing life start with a scream or end with a smile (or a sigh) is an awful moment for people lucky enough to be there.

Awful, as in wonderful, sublime.

The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines awful as inspiring awe, solemnly impressive, notable (especially for badness).

We’ve all heard those phrases: that’s awful; he’s awful; I feel awful. We’ve used them. But doesn’t it say something awful, as in especially bad, about us that we use the word to describe the unpleasant or nasty?

Are we negative about awful because we’ve deified comfort and materialism and demonized the immaterial and intangible; adopting that I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude instead of I’ll see it when I believe it?

The first is logical and practical, but cuts us off from the sublime. We can only see four per cent of the universe, but the other 96 per cent exists whether we believe it or not.

Subconsciously, we filter out what does not fit our concept of reality. We project our beliefs onto the world and it reflects them back.

If we believe ugliness and evil are everywhere, that’s what we see and we dismiss anyone with contrary views as a Pollyanna.

There’s a Yiddish folktale that goes something like this:

An old man sat outside the walls of a great city and travellers would ask him what kind of people lived there. “What kind of people live in the place where you came from?” the old man would answer.

If they said, “Only bad people,” he would reply, “you will find only bad people here.”

But if they answered, “Good people,” he would say, “Enter, for here, too, you will find only good people."

We’ve all felt awe, if only for a moment, controllable awe: driving down Bridge Hill; along the Penticton-Naramata road, skiing though silence and fresh powder, sitting in a kayak in the middle of a lake, watching a sunrise or a sunset, or baby quail run pell mell after their parents, staring into a baby’s eyes as it clutches our finger.

“Awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth,” Dacher Kelter, of the University of California, and Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, wrote in Approaching Awe, a moral, spiritual and aesthetic emotion.

They suggest we suppress or explain away awe-full moments because they can be disorienting, even frightening, and make us feel small, confused and powerless.

But by rejecting them or not experiencing them fully, we shortchange ourselves because “they often involve feelings of enlightenment and even rebirth, when mental structures expand to accommodate truths never before known.”

We don’t want to chance that, we don’t want to move beyond the known and the comfortable because life might demand we move to Calcutta, or become we know not what.

That would be truly awful, in the sense that we normally use the word and fill us with fear, not wonder.

But we don’t need to buy a plane ticket to India. We could start small: really smell the roses, the coffee and the garbage, appreciate that view from Bridge Hill, the Naramata road, but also when we’re sliding along a snowy road with the brakes locked, hands and teeth clenched.

Remember that song, Cinnamon let me in? Awe-full moments are all around, knocking on our door, imploring us to let them in. We are life becoming and if cut ourselves off from that source, we dry up and miss the awe-full moments all around us.

American psychologist Carl Rogers said being open is a natural condition we have suppressed by the defences we built to protect ourselves from what we consider the vicissitudes of life.

Awe is central to religion, nature and art. Who has stood in front of Michelangelo’s David, heard Beethoven’s violin concerto, or watched Karen Kain in Swan Lake and didn’t get goose bumps?

But we don’t need to travel or buy tickets to a performance to be in the awe and wonder. We can certainly find it in nature, in a walk through City Park, along the Greenway or the Parkway.

“Sanding on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space — all mean egotism vanishes,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Nature.

“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

There is also awe in sweat. Even the unathletic have being in the zone, whether on a golf course or soccer field, in a hockey arena or swimming pool, climbing up a mountain or skiing down it.

We can even feel it when we take a great picture with our point and shoot, and make something approximating a piece of jewelry or a painting in a beginner art class.

We might be OK with awe in religion, art, nature and music, and the big moments, but we should endeavour to see significance, epiphanies and wonder in the mundane.

We let them slip away while we’re at work or waiting — in dull meetings, traffic, in a doctor’s or ICBC office. Those are the times to appreciate the awe instead of wishing we were someplace else doing something else.

We think of the grand moments as the ones we spend with someone we love, watching a (grand)child in a crib or playing hockey, listening to music, watching dance, but they’re also watching someone clean our windshield while we’re at a red light, or getting a ticket for running that light.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow described awe as peak experience and said that there are essentially two religions: peaker and non-peaker.

“(There are people 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.”

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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