Awe and wonder are two of the emotions most integral to spiritual experience. When people hear that I do something “spiritual”, they’ll say things like, “I don’t believe in God, but when I look up the stars, I can barely breathe”. Indeed, spirituality is all about universal human experiences like wonder and awe. And this is a good time of year to notice them. What do they do for us? Why do we choose to celebrate holidays that revolve around them? What does it feel like to experience wonder? We could, you know, wonder about wonder.
Wonder is everywhere in this culture, at this time of year. The place I notice it most is in TV commercials. (They’re an excellent source of learning about values and beliefs!)
What TV commercials tell me is that if you want to come up with a shorthand for awe and wonder, you show a little kid’s face all lit up. Grownups lost that look somewhere along the way, I guess. That says something– and I have to say I agree with the commercials. Wonder and awe are incredibly precious, transformative emotions, spiritual gifts that come easily to children. As adults we could stand to be more like them.
I don’t want to discount the fact that a great many people suffer much more at the holiday season than any other time, in part because happiness almost seems mandatory. I can’t say I’m a fan of mandatory happiness, for those very reasons. But I do think that true awe and wonder serve a very serious purpose in human life.
Wonder and awe are about what’s beyond the self. In fact, the things that reliably trigger these feelings are things that are unbelievably, infinitely beyond: beyond comprehension in their intricacy, beyond understanding in their scope. We marvel at the vastness of the night sky, the perfection of a sleeping baby’s face.
Wonder and awe give us an expansive, airy feeling, even while taking our breath away. The boundaries of the self seem a little more permeable, the universe a bit more friendly. Nothing can seem ordinary in a state of wonder or awe. It’s states like these that can help us want to live, and live more fully.
This is a time of year when so many of us feel spent, contracted, lonely, turned inward. The darkness at this time of year is relentless. Call it Vitamin D deficiency, call it a dark night of the soul: it can be crushing. The holiday season, with its festivals of light and warmth, beckons us to return to interconnectedness, to reach out and be part of something much larger than ourselves. Wonder and awe are useful– and not only that, they feel magnificent.