Is There Room for Awe?

What didn’t survive the cut in the Expectations post was a digression about how my generation has a jaded seen-it-all attitude that is very disturbing. We have largely been driven from the primitive, from the real laws of nature, of the wild, the principles of being human. I felt it working very strongly in me during our recent canoe trip, especially during the first few days.

It is an alarmingly disengaged sensation, a feeling of being distant from where you are, what you are seeing, hearing, feeling. It is frustrating, like a glass wall between yourself and reality.

Last Friday, we were at the bar with some friends. Katie and I were talking with a friend, N. Katie said that one of our other friends had said she was “shocked and awed” by something a few days before. N and I paused for a second. I was thinking that it’s sad that such a descriptive — if hyperbolic — statement has been co-opted by the warmongers. N said that she was never awed by anything anymore, though shocked quite often.

In the discarded section of Expectations, I had considered that not only are we not awed by anything, but we have been taught to admire our jadedness and our cynicism. I don’t know if N was exactly bragging about it, but she was certainly conscious, and accepting, of it.

At a different bar, a few nights ago, I went into the bathroom. This bathroom is memorable for the ironically-worded, penciled graffiti above the urinals. I saw that someone had written, “Brian Shelly is Aweful.” The misspelling of the word awful caught my eye. The true spelling of the word really, something that speaks to its real meaning. Being associated with awe doesn’t always have to be a good thing. Hyperbole might be necessary to describe the awesome and the awful.

There was a story in Sunday’s St. Paul Pioneer Press about the writer John Hildebrand (registration required, you can use email:, password: juvie211 to log in). He says he writes about “how people fit into the landscape and their conflicts, which are usually rooted in the land.” He is not a nature writer.

“Nature writing is often pious and boring, in a constant state of awe.”

I’m not sure what school of nature writing he is talking about here, but there is much great writing out there about the drama of the wild, connecting with the world on very real bases, being a participant on Earth, not a god. It’s anything but condescending or pious and I’ve never found it the least bit boring. Of course, personal taste must be accounted for. He got me thinking.

Isn’t there awe to be felt and described? Some years ago, Katie and I concluded that God must hand the skies over to the great artists, Monet, Van Gogh. They are art. So is the lake we paddled around Sunday afternoon, a lake with torquoise water carved deep into the hills, a lake I know better than any other. Perhaps the work of Leonardo da Vinci?

I don’t want to write about stumbling around the woods in a starry-eyed daze, staring up at the highest branches or the blue sky beyond. Hildebrand offers a good caution against that. I want to focus on the whole by concentrating on the specific. But, neither do I want to write an academic paper or something so dry and esoteric that some people might not get anything out of it whatsoever. The best way to preach to the choir is to read Scripture.

Awe is still possible, though many people don’t know what it feels like, how to understand it, how to make use of it. So it’s fallen by the wayside.

9 thoughts on “Is There Room for Awe?

  1. the dharma bum Post author

    I should say that I’ve been working on this for a bit… Kind of stalled out. It’s far from perfect, but I wanted to publish it and be done with it.

    I’m outta here for a long weekend up north. Cheers!

  2. hipchickmamma

    i really liked this piece. you’ve nailed it. as a generation without awe, how do we bring it to life, experience it and pass it on to our kids? or do we regain it from them?

    we traveled the stretch of I-70 between kansas city and denver recently and everyone wanted to sympathize with us going on the long boring drive. but it was awe-full. i took in all the hills and bluffs, the red dirt, and imagined myself on a horse riding and being at peace, lying in the tall grass. did i miss it? by seeing myself out in the plains, did i remove myself from the present?

    i don’t know, i think i’ve wandered off track, but i agree. the landscape–even that of kansas and eastern colorado is awe-full, to me.

  3. lene

    I really like this piece as well.

    A friend of mine commented the other day that he hates the way people use “awesome”–that in using it to describe less than awe-inspiring moments, people reduce the impact and experience of awe. Much of what you said I think echoes that idea. The way you weave personal reflection into your work makes it delightful to read.

    How do we open ourselves up to the possibilities of awe?

    I’ve found, for me, it comes by paying closer attention.

  4. Deb

    This piece really spoke to me as well. Thanks to the link to the Hildebrand article; I’ll have to read that today. I’ve read some of his stuff; I’m trying to remember the title, but there’s one good book about paddling the Yukon River. I must admit, I’ve had the same reaction to some nature writing, although I can’t remember specific authors right now, that sense that it is “pious and boring, in a constant state of awe”. Do I get that reaction because I have not allowed myself to experience that sense of awe, or because I am jealous that these writers can feel it and put it into words. I’ll have to think about that.

    I think it’s largely a product of the television/movie/entertainment industry, which has created the expectation that we must be entertained constantly by artificial means, that the world, unenhanced by special effects, is inherently boring, or just by constant exposure to images that once had to be experienced directly, we become numb to the wonder. I have felt this way about live music, having played in everything from orchestra to bluegrass band, that most people don’t understand the amazing feat a live performance is anymore, when excerpts from great symphonies are constantly heard in commercials or as background music for TV or movies.

    I’m rambling here, but that post really has me thinking.

  5. the dharma bum Post author

    wow. like i said up top, this piece was pretty rough and incomplete in my estimation, yet you guys have managed to build a lot on it and add a lot. some of it was stuff that i had thought about but couldn’t express, other things were really interesting new directions to take it…

    no matter what, the thing that really gets me going is when somebody says something i wrote got them thinking. that’s why i read your blogs, and i’m glad you can occasionally get the same here.

    hipchickmamma – very interesting points about how even landscapes that are not all that dramatic are still awe-full… you took an interesting tack to arrive at an important point about seeking out awe, and if we do, maybe that makes it harder to find. and even if we find it, what have we missed? shouldn’t we just live and be in the moment and appreciate every moment? but then what do we end up with?

    lene – as always, you hit it squarely on the head of the nail with your comment that finding awe comes by getting specific. maybe we have a hard time finding awe because we are programmed to look for the most obvious thing, the biggest, loudest, brightest thing, as the best thing. TV, billboards, cars, all of it… nothing is “subtle” anymore. the times i’ve felt the most awe is on my knees streamside, studying a tiny, beautiful wildflower. it is awesome because it is simple, because it advertises its presence to only those who pay attention (the bees, you and me)…

    on another note, i know what you’re saying about being sick of hearing “awesome.” it’s ridiculously nondescriptive now, which only further alienates us from true awe.

    deb – i don’t quite know where to start (and this comment is getting post-length) but you too had really interesting points. i should have made it clear that i wasn’t trying to give all “nature writing” a free pass. for a long time, i’ve mostly avoided it because i’ve found it boring, pious and full of awe. poorly-conveyed awe, to boot, though that might have something to do with how difficult the true feeling of awe is to convey, especially to readers unaccustomed to it. but then i found people like gary snyder and sigurd olson, people who write thoughts about the wild and wilderness and nature in such a way its like reading your own dream journals… as a writer, i also know what you’re talking about when you say you don’t know if you’re jealous of the writer for having the experience or for being able to put it into words. it’s a common afflication amongst writers. i’m a recovering english major, a little traumatized by the competitiveness of my college creative writing classes. i’ve so enjoyed this blogging community because i’ve found communal support, inspiration, etc. my college classes were a combination of people showing off (and sometimes very well, which made me not only dislike their abrasive personality but question the fairness of the universe) and of “oooh, that’s nice.”

    i better wrap this up. your comment about symphonies and the cheapening of music gave me a lot to think about. being at a great live show is a similar experience to being in the wilderness. it’s also usually unreachable when you’re no longer hearing the music… does that make sense?

    anyway, many thanks.

  6. Erich


    …In the BWCA I stared up at the full moon, a perfect sphere standing out against the sky so that you could see how not just a two-dimensional image but an actual glowing orb in the sky. I relayed this to my friends and they ridiculed me.

    Five minutes later, a guy pulls out his GPS and says, “Look at this! This thing shows the moon exactly how it looks right now.” They stood around the computerized device and wondered at the digitized moon, obviously far superior to the real thing.

  7. the dharma bum Post author

    Do you remember that one time, when you were in the Beatles? That was awesome!

    No wait. Anyway, perfect anecdote. The attitude is kind of: been there, done that. Some people refuse to believe that the natural world can hold any more surprises, that only man’s handiwork is of any interest or importance.

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