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We All Need More Wonder & Awe ~ The Emotions Series

January 9, 2014

Alice Popkorn flickr

Writing about his choices for the top films of 2013, New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden began his piece with an unusual explanatory note, “Generalized anxiety.” That is by far the most common complaint voiced by the clients of a prominent New York psychiatrist whom I recently asked to identify the malaise of the moment.”

In nooks and crannies and in big noisy headlines, tension and uncertainty are becoming commonplace memes in these times.  There are no easy or fast solutions.  There is no Rx. This is life as we have constructed as a society so far; conscious choices or not.

We’re in need of many things and technology can’t solve all of our problems.  In fact, it’s created many new ones – estrangement from genuine social contact, endless distractions, even addictions from device overload and perhaps worst of all – a growing detachment from the wonders of human existence.

Dare we still dream? Is it illusory and irresponsible to yearn for the luxuries of wonder – that feeling caused by seeing something that is surprising, beautiful and amazing? 

First, to find wonder again, we must strip off the veneers of self-protection we have layered on as we face what we have collectively identified as the realities of modern life. Author Rob Brezsny writes, “Many of us have given in to the temptation to believe that everything is upside-down and inside-out. Ignorance and inertia, partially camouflaged as time-honored morality, seem to surround us. Pessimism is enshrined as a hallmark of worldliness. Compulsive skepticism masquerades as perceptiveness. Mean-spirited irony is chic. Stories about treachery and degradation provoke a visceral thrill in millions of people who think of themselves as reasonable and smart. Beautiful truths are suspect and ugly truths are readily believed.”

These are Hard Times in the World

The so-called Millennial generation faces unprecedented global and local challenges – economic, social and certainly environmental.  The world’s a mess, so many say.  Too many of us are disappointed and feel duped by the ignorance of earlier generations that have left us in this state of stagnation, imbalance and general disrepair.

In his extraordinary book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, author Charles Eisenstein writes, “We once thought economists would fix poverty, political scientists would fix social injustice, chemists and biologists would fix environmental problems and the power of reason would prevail and we would adopt sane policies.”

It is, after all, easy to see how we have lost our sense of wonder. Wonder seems like such an extravagance in a demanding and harsh world – one driven by relentless productivity.

But we need wonder – now more than ever.

In her poem, Mindful, the brilliant words of Mary Oliver invite us to the daily possibilities to rekindle wonder within ourselves:

I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Feelings of wonder and awe cannot be manufactured or captured. We can’t instagram the truly awesome momentary feeling of glimpsing a sunset or catching the light of love coming from another. If we are not there or should I say here – we will miss them.

To experience wonder and awe, we must make ourselves more available to them. We must set the table for the light to come in.  We must  – as the popular Facebook/Pinterest aphorism goes – stop the glorification of busy –  get better control of what distracts our attention in insignificant diversions, get quieter and penetrate the defenses we construct with a web of beliefs that deny us the delights of human wonder.

We’re Hurt and Need to be Healed

I might be losing some readers now. If you are thinking, “All this wonder and awe stuff sounds like self-indulgent psycho-babble,” I want to take you back to the last time you felt wonder-full.  Not sated or even thrilled – but filled with wonder. There is a distinct feeling when you are enthralled by the fleeting experience of wonder and awe.   If wonder catches us by surprise and leaves us in amazement, awe instills a deep sense of reverence and admiration – both creating a sense of oneness with something bigger than us.  Wonder’s gift is that it renews our deepest nature of belonging. Wonder reminds us that even in our aloneness we are surrounded by greatness.

Charles Eisenstein writes, “The derision of the cynic comes from a wound of crushed idealism and betrayed hopes. The cynic mistakes his cynicism for realism. He wants us to discard the hopeful things that touch his wound, to settle for what is consistent with his lowered expectations.”

Resiliency, today’s great buzzword, isn’t simply about adopting a set of “strategies” to unravel stress. While behavioral changes need to be made to develop more flexible responses to outside stimuli, resilience is built from the inside out.  The weary cynic in us needs hope. The overwhelmed worrier in us needs soothing. And the frustrated, angry and disappointed parts of ourselves need rest.  Allowing in more wonder and awe can do that.

Wonder and awe are gateway emotions.  They can enable a sense of gratitude, appreciation, joy, peace and contentment. Wonder and awe heal because they nourish.

Once again, in her poem, The Ponds, Mary Oliver shows us the way…

Still, what I want in my life

Is to be willing

To be dazzled

To cast aside the weight of facts

And maybe even

To float a little

Above this difficult world.

I want to believe I am looking

 Into the white fire of a great mystery.

I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing

That the light is everything-that is more than the sum

Of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do. 

Whether a poem, music, a star-filled sky, the smile of a child or your own beautiful body, allow wonder in – and let it do its work.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Related Articles: Why Do We Continue to Think Self-Compassion is Self-Indulgent? The 8 Enablers of Joy, Building Resiliency Through Emotional Awareness

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2014 8:32 am

    Beautiful piece, nicely written. I am a huge Mary Oliver fan. Thanks for awakening more wonder and awe in the light of today.

    • January 10, 2014 1:02 pm

      Thanks for the comment – pleased you enjoyed the piece. Yes, mutual admiration for Mary Oliver – who often guides me into “awakening more awe and wonder in the light of today.”


  2. January 9, 2014 9:10 am

    I love this post, Louise. Can’t imagine a better way to greet each day than with an openness to wonder and awe. The perfect things to replace fear and anxiety with.

    Also appreciate your sharing Mary Oliver’s poems: “the white fire of a great mystery” How wonderful!

    Thank you for your always thoughtful and inspiring words.

    • January 12, 2014 3:33 pm

      Hi Ronnie~
      I think in so many ways, awe and wonder are great healing emotions. We’re human and can’t escape experiencing fear and anxiety – but can use the soothing balm of wonder and other emotions. Glad you appreciate Mary’s work – she is often one of my wonder-full resources.
      Thanks for sharing~

  3. January 10, 2014 10:06 am

    …..and I’m reminded of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination, I left that place with my face aching from so much smiling. A truly awe-some experience.

    • January 12, 2014 3:25 pm

      Hi John

      Although I still have not had the experience of visiting the Sagrada Familia, I find it a perfect reference for feelings of awe and wonder. Architectural critic Paul Goldberger called it “The most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages,” but I am sure it goes much deeper than that. While I don’t know anything about Gaudi’s “faith” or inspiration, I am sure he was creating from senses of wonder and awe.
      Some years ago when I needed a “home” for a New York city-wide project to raise consciousness and change policy for the growing homeless population, the visionary Dean of the ever unfinished Cathedral of St John the Divine offered me shelter. I was too embarrassed to tell him I’d never set foot in the church despite having lived in NYC since graduate school. Hesitant to label the project as religious he suggested I think about it as more “sacred.”

      Few people know that the Cathedral, along with the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, is one of the largest in the world and the 4th largest Christian church. For over a year I found myself learning about the great journeys and struggles of cathedral building. I learned from the artisans (sculptors, poets, musicians, acrobats, writers, stonemasons) supported by the Cathedral of their devotion to beauty, truly inspired by a kind of collective awe and wonder and began to put aside my judgment of the “wastefulness” of building vain edifices.

      In fact, I did a lot more smiling (though doing very different kind of work than my Cathedral colleagues) and allowed it to shape my efforts with more – shall I say – grace?

      Thanks for that John – a wonderful reminder and recollection.


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