I grew up without religion or spirituality, and was your typical teenage atheist. But at the age of 11, I began what turned out to be 13 years of severe depression, anxiety, and psychosis. They called it depression but I wasn’t sad - I was terrified. I hated myself and was convinced that everyone else hated me too. I would work myself into a frenzy of self harming every night - every night for 13 years, until I would find myself laying on the floor, gasping, too tired to continue, and I would pray for death.
Every time this happened, God came a little closer. Because when you’re at your most vulnerable, that’s when the monsters have done their work - and God comes over and says, “I still love you. I still love you, when you’re lying here helpless. I love you even when you’re completely lost from yourself.”
I didn’t “Find God”. I didn’t convert. I didn’t read a book to learn what God was about. I just felt something, over those years, pulling me up gently over and over again like an invisible string. Sometimes with my eyes closed, I would feel the room fill with light, and a warmth wash over me.
Now at the age of 24, the darkness is gone. The pain is gone. And every day I am thankful for His mercy. This song, Never Let Me Go, is exactly how God feels to me - and makes me feel awe every time I hear it. This feeling of being loved so unconditionally makes me cry and laugh at the same time.
I am working towards my master’s degree in neuroscience. My field is absolutely incredible, and there are tiny moments of awe peeking out at me all the time. For example- there are a over a thousand times more synapses (points where neurons communicate) in your brain than there are stars in the entire Milky Way galaxy. And yet these rattle away in almost perfect harmony for your entire life, whether or not you know they’re there.
But it was several days ago that learning about neuroscience actually gave me a physical sensation of awe. I was sitting in the library reading the book Connectome, by Sebastian Seung. Overall, the book is just okay, but there was one part that really moved me. Seung was describing how the arrangement of synapses in our brain could be one of the main things that determines the wide range of mental differences between people, and that this arrangement might be largely due to random chance.
I sat back in my chair, and my mind filled with the incredible, stunning variety of humanity. Introverted, extroverted, gay, straight, alcoholic, genius, bi-polar, claustrophobic, funny, obsessive-compulsive, musical, and on and on. I felt like we were all part of one fabric, and we should all work as hard as we can to respect and preserve the truly awesome richness of our species. For a moment, I felt as thought I had glimpsed something behind the scenes, beyond anyone’s control, that shapes our humanity, and it made me feel connected to every other person on the planet. And it made me love them.
I feel awe and the most alive in the early summer mornings standing out amidst the fields, hoe in hand while the sun begins to crest the horizon. The silence is the sound of peace and timelessness. A cool breeze whispers across the land. The world lights up with rustic oranges, yellows, scarlets, and golds. About my boots, the blossoming plants innocently reach towards the sky. From a tiny seed those same crops instinctively knew when it was time to grow. They already know what they are supposed to become. Who told them?
I am awed by the power of belief. Belief is capable of rejecting the undeniable and embracing the unbelievable. Belief is the portal to an infinite number of possible realities. Near 7 billion people, 7 billion realities, all different; now that’s awesome!
Here’s what makes me feel awe: the subtle line between irrational and rational, between awake and asleep, between day and night, between unconscious and conscious. Those sweet moments that prove that, no matter how organized and categorized our (sub)consciousness demands the world to be, there’s nothing but a never-ending continuum of seconds, shades and beats.
There was a drunk guy passed out near my flat tonight. It is cold and wet and late, he was slumped over. He wasn’t dead. I managed to rouse him but he wouldn’t budge, would not move just five meters into the doorway with a roof. When he started saying I’m all right I’m all right over and over again I backed off, I said Ok I can’t make you… but really the roof is right here…
The rain was coming thicker. I was already cold. He wasn’t going to move. I didn’t want to find him there in the morning, sick or robbed or dead, so I called the local police. I said it was non-urgent, but, y’know… In 20 minutes they called back and I guided them to find him.
As I retreated indoors they were saying to him It’s the police… Come on, people are worried about you, which I thought was quite sweet. There’s just been a case of two young female police lured to a trap and murdered in the UK, and these two officers fit the same profile, and here they are, still on the streets, walking toward all manner of potential trouble for the greater good. At times, I find the organisation and compassion of society awe-inspiring.
I am one of those people who experiences awe on a more frequent basisthan do most people. Or, it seems so to me. I am not religious. In fact, I count myself as a radical atheist. One who has little intellectual respect for those who don’t understand that when the “founding fathers” described freedom of religion, they also would have agreed with the statement “freedom from religion.” But that’s a drum I won’t bang here. You probably get my position.
So, as to awe… yes, it can be anywhere one looks. An insect working in its colony. A risky grab at a suicidal jumper. An organ donation from a living person to a total stranger. A victim of physical, emotional and sexual abuse who manages to make something transcendent of her life. I could make an argument that awe is endless and everywhere, if one chooses to really see it.
For me, what never fails to inspire, is in reading about or seeing images of the universe at work. The recent discovery of thousands of planets, confirming what we imagined but had no proof of, a mere twenty years ago. Massive forces, gases, cosmic dust, light, waves, gravity… all strings of some inaudible symphony being played in what may not even be a physical place so much as in our own minds’ perceptions of what simply appears. Real or not, it exists somewhere; and it’s beauty is endless and immeasurable.
I often want to grab someone and talk…”hey, look at that! What is a double star system, or an event horizon? Help me understand! Don’t you feel overwhelmed, as I do?” But even my loved ones, family, will look at me like, “okay, relax. I see you’re excited, but who knows about all that? and how can I even spend time thinking about it while I try to carve out a difficult and challenging survival?”
It seems that all earthly phenomena and our experience of it is both puny and fully comprehensive. We just can’t work out how it fits together.
I’ve always had a fantasy that, in death, I [whatever I is] would experience that moment of “OH!! SO THAT’S WHAT IT ALL IS, WAS, WILL BE!!!!! But in reality, I fear that I will go quietly, with no right to assume that, even if there is an answer, or an understanding, that it will be revealed. And so… all the more reason to seek awe right here, right now, as much as possible… so it’s not missed.
I do a lot of canoeing in the Candian Quetico in Ontario, and there are few things in like that make me feel as loved, alive and at peace than those beautiful sunrises. When my friends and I would watch the sun rise at 4:00am I have never felt so close to them or to nature and God. To be with ones you love watching something beautiful happen… for me, there can be nothing better.
Music-wise: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor
Coldplay’s Fix You (when listened to on proper speakers in an empty room in solitude)
Book: Tuesdays With Morrie. Without going into too much detail, it changed my life such that every day I ask myself, “If today is the day I die, would I be happy with the person I am and the things I am doing?” I don’t know if you read yesterday’s Listserv, but the writer seemed disenfranchised and assuming that every thing people say is a cliche. I hope that you and I are never jaded like that, and that we can appreciate the advice people have to give and truly take it to heart.
Experience: Since you don’t know me, there is a mutual understanding between the two of us that anything I say is not to impress you or make myself seem like a good person. I have a genuine moment of awe whenever I help the homeless; whether this means giving someone a meal, volunteering at a soup kitchen, giving money, or physically bringing someone to the grocery store to let them grocery shop (the last is my favorite). The encounter between two “different” people, and being able to connect and mutually give and receive makes my heart swell every time.
From a religious point of view: I am a 21 year old Jewish, observant college student. This past Yom Kippur (Jewish day of atonement, a 25-hour fast and break from “work” to repent and be judged), I spent the holy day on my college campus instead of going home, as per usual. Sitting in a room of 18-23 year olds, plus some scattered adults, who are all voluntarily spending their day introspecting and praying and abstaining from life’s simple pleasures like eating, drinking water, showering, and wearing makeup, blew my mind. It showed me the unity that makes Judaism beautiful, which has been permeating my every day since then.
It doesn’t happen every spring, but there’s usually a moment when I’m outside, and the trees are that bright new green, and the birds are fluttering about excitedly, and there’s a breeze, and everything is bursting forth with life, and the universe is in tune… I get an expansive feeling in my chest as if love is about to fly from my chest like a baby alien.
Sometimes it’s not only the AWE but when that AWE happens that forges the experience. I couldn’t have been much older than 8 when it happened. My family would regularly takes weekends out to the country and visit my Uncles, Aunts and cousins on the farm. Now we’re not talking about a nice jaunt down a windy paved road guarded closely by towering trees and broken only by a few green meadows. No, we’re talking about long stretches of gravel that carve a dusty trail on the bald ass prairie. The only thing that towers on these flat plains are the tall wooden telephone poles that crisscross the never ending horizon. But that’s where it happened. In the dead of night with only the car headlights guiding my Dad down the path home. I looked out the window and realized how big and beautiful the night sky was. At that young age I could hardly comprehend the immense nature of the universe. I saw bright dazzling stars like pinpoints of light through a black canvas. And I was in AWE. When I look up I am still in awe but I remember that boy who was first amazed at this starry night.
The “passing cloud” pattern of a hunting cuttlefish: mesmerising waves of colour rolling from one end of its body to the other, tentacles and skin contorted into weird distorted shapes to break up its outline so that its prey cannot recognise it. Utterly astounding.
I’m tired of being told about the strangeness of the very small. About the length of DNA, or how many neurons are in our heads. Or about how complicated the smallest cells are, or that space is real fucking big.
What happened to things being simply beautiful?
Don’t give me the universe and a vast cold nothingness, give me a small life packed with meaning.
A lot of nights, I stare up at the moon and try my very hardest to make myself believe that it’s a sphere and not a disc. No matter how much I know it in my mind, it’s hard to see it that way—to wrap my head around the enormity of it and the vastness of the distance. Once in a while, though, I succeed…usually just for a few seconds. That’s when I feel awe.
My name is Jen Davino, I’m from Brooklyn, NY and my awe inspiring moment was in Death Valley CA October 2011.
I take part in a charity ride every year to fundraise for diabetes research. Last year I did the event in Death Valley where I helped coach other riders compete their goal in riding 100miles.
At around mile 80 in the 112degree heat I pulled over to stop and stare at the scenery around me. The solitary road of black asphalt with white salt in the horizon, the reds, yellows, oranges and bronze colors reflecting off the rock was spectacular, but even more so? The silence. It envelops you.
Instantly I thought of what it must be like in the deepest parts of the ocean. Dark with a silence so profound you wonder if its your imagination. But instead I was in the bright sunshine desert heat of Death Valley with a silence so heavy you felt like it could suffocate you. It was comforting and scary. Completely awe inspiring with how deafening the silence was. The funny thing is, you could only appreciate it if you stopped moving and stood still and in this day and age that’s rare.
I felt the awe you described once, looking skyward standing under the rotating blades of a ~70 meter high wind turbine at Albany wind farm. The size is impressive itself, but its knowing the human effort and ingenuity that went into harnessing natures most raw forces to do useful work, the absolute elegance of the solution and the cleverness of the design that me feel awe as I watched each blade pass almost noiselessly above, generating clean energy for us as it went sailing by.
I recently had a very bad day, and while I wept wholeheartedly on my bed, my dog Simon came over to me for a pet. When I reached out to pat his head, he growled at me (for a still unknown reason). Reacting like a child, I shoved him away from me—though much harder than I meant to, and he tumbled off the bed rather harshly. I immediately felt this sickening guilt and rushed to see if he was okay, but he wanted nothing to do with me. My sorrow was amplified one thousand times, having felt like I just betrayed the one being who could stand being near me in my ultimate despair, and I cried even harder for the rest of the night.
The next morning I woke up drained, sore and still feeling the intense sorrow I went to bed with. When I opened my bedroom door, there right in front of me was Simon, waiting with his favorite toy in his mouth, tail wagging so furiously, he could barely keep his butt on the floor. At that moment, I felt love like I have never felt before. He waited patiently for me to invite him in, and when I did, he was so excited to see me, he couldn’t decide if he wanted to jump on my bed or jump on me. When I finally managed to come over to him, he immediately handed me his toy, then flopped onto his back and wiggled around on my quilt until I scratched his stomach. Every time I looked into his eyes (and as silly as this sounds), I felt forgiven, and loved, and reassured that regardless of how many times I felt alone and uncared for, there would always be one being on this earth who absolutely and perfectly adores me.
We spent the rest of the morning playing and cuddling and sleeping.
Without a doubt, my deepest sense of wonder was inspired by my first visit to the Grand Canyon and has been deepened on each successive visit. I’m certain others would list this national treasure as their wonder-inspiring element, and I think that’s part of the allure - it is massive enough for each person who visits it to create and foster a personal connection.
>On my first trip, I called my mom from the South Rim mid-afternoon. It was a daring thing to do, considering I’d been rendered speechless a few moments before. Still, when she answered the phone, I mustered words. They are the same words I use to describe the experience today, “It is amazing. I feel so incredibly small. At the same time, I feel incredibly connected, as thought I could touch every part of everything I see at the same time.”
Aside from all musicians everywhere and professional surfers, another thing I’m in awe of is Diego Rivera’s main mural at the National Palace in Mexico City. I’m American but have been living in Mexico City for seven years now and whenever I have people visiting this is one of the few things I will drop everything for and go look at again as it is truly awesome in the original sense of the word. I never ever get tired of doing this. The mural covers three separate walls so it’s impossible to get the entire thing in one shot, but If you conduct an image search for “mexico palacio nacional diego rivera” you should see several photos come up that capture different pieces of it.
When I am outdoors, and I look up and the huge sky envelops me. The tops of the trees stretch into the massive blue ocean of air that is all around us, but we forget that it’s there. Then as my eyes move down from the trees to the earth, I see other plants and sometimes animals, living on this plane called earth. I look down into the grass at my feet. I sit down. I lay down, face to the earth. I look at all the tiny little ridges on each blade of grass. I look at the tiny granules of soil. And, wow, there are things even smaller than that, that I cannot see with my eyes. There are things bigger than the sky above me. And smaller than we can even detect with a microscope. How big and how small the universe is. I am so grateful to be part of it.
“Even as a man casts off worn-out clothes, and puts on others which are new, so the embodied casts off worn-out bodies, and enters into others which are new. This (Self), weapons cut not; This, fire burns not; This, water wets not; and This, wind dries not. This Self cannot be cut, nor burnt, nor wetted, nor dried. Changeless, all-pervading, unmoving, immovable, the Self is eternal. This (Self) is said to be unmanifested, unthinkable, and unchangeable. Therefore, knowing This to be such, thou oughtest not to mourn.”—
I read the entirety of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, but this particular quote gave me an intense chill, and a warmth spread through my chest. It is taken from the Bhagavad Gita.
We’re a twin planet. Not many of us normally think of the Moon as a companion planet, but that is in effect what it is. Most moons are tiny in relation to their master planet. The Martian satellites of Phobos and Deimos, for instance, are only about ten kilometers in diameter. Our Moon, however, is more than a quarter the diameter of Earth, which makes ours the only planet in the solar system with a sizeable moon in comparison to itself (except Pluto, which doesn’t really count because Pluto is itself so small), and what a difference that makes to us.
Without the Moon’s steadying influence, the Earth would wobble like a dying top, with goodness knows what consequences for climate and weather. The Moon’s steady gravitational influence keeps the Earth spinning at the right speed and angle to provide the sort of stability necessary for the long and successful development of life. This won’t go on forever. The Moon is slipping from our grasp at a rate of about 1.5 inches a year. In another two billion years it will have receded so far that it won’t keep us steady and we will have to come up with some other solution, but in the meantime you should think of it as much more than just a pleasant feature in the night sky.
-Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
This video by XVIVO for Harvard’s BioVision only represents the main processes necessary for a white cell to recognise its surroundings. Now picture that this all happens constantly, hundreds of times per second, in each white cell in your body. There is over 20 billion white cells in your body, out over 10 TRILLION cells in total.
To me this level of complexity in living organisms rivals the awe I get from contemplating the cosmos and the subatomic world.
I had a literal moment of awe when I was driving home today, after a long day. It was dark, and I was looking forward to coming home and going right to sleep.
As I turned the corner at the streetlight, there it was; egg-shaped and warm flaxen in colour. Riding low, just above the housetops, was the moon, giant, as if God had placed a magnifying glass over that part of the sky. Even though I was driving alone, my jaw literally dropped and I whispered “wow”. My problems at work suddenly disappeared, my homesickness disappeared, my worries about money disappeared, and I suddenly wasn’t tired anymore. In fact, I came home and called a friend back home, which often seems oh-so-far away. I called her and asked her if she could see the moon, too. I’ve heard that cheesy phone call done in movies, but had never really thought about it like this before. She could see it, and I could see it. And although we are miles and miles (and miles, and miles) apart, it made it seem like it wasn’t so bad. The world is a big, scary place, yes. But every now and then, I understand that we’re all on this earth together and although we all have our own troubles, we’re all existing as one, when it comes right down to it.
Humanity: Average and Amazing and Made of Stardust
"We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special."
- Stephen Hawking
"We are made out of stardust. The iron in the hemoglobin molecules in the blood in your right hand came from a star that blew up 8 billion years ago. The iron in your left hand came from another star. We are the laws of chemistry and physics as they have played out here on Earth and we are now learning that planets are as common as stars. Most stars, as it turns out now, will have planets.”