Why Our Lives Needed the Awe and Wonder This Week

Eclipse seen in the eyes of a woman

Two things happened on the East Coast recently that generated a lot of excitement and conversation.

The first thing that happened was earth-shaking – literally; the earth shook. A relatively minor earthquake, centered about midway between Philadelphia and New York City, rumbled for a few seconds, registering at about 4.7 on the Richter Scale. In California they would have simply shrugged it off as an earth-burp; but here on the Eastside it was supreme water-cooler conversation and ruled the news cycle.

The next thing that happened was actually expected, but it still took center stage regarding our national focus. On Tuesday, April 8, multiple millions of eyes were uplifted to gaze upon a command-performance that was taking place in the heavens – a total eclipse of the Sun. It wasn’t the first – nor will it be the last – solar eclipse; but,  this celestial sky-show captivated and thrilled the nation!

Total strangers conversed about these two phenomena like old friends at the General Store.  The news treated these relatively common occurrences like the second coming of the Beatles to America. At first, I chalked it up to media hysteria, but then I realized that something else was going on.

Our culture is suffering from withdrawal due to a lack of Awe and Wonder, and the earthquake and the eclipse addressed our need for both!

We have created a world that has become jaded and overstimulated, and we are losing our capacity for awe and wonder.

Essential Elements

Experts, though, urge us to consider how essential both are for a healthy life. These two elements of life (they are more than simple “emotions”) are often viewed as a tautology, but they are really different things. Awe can be defined as the recognition that one is in the presence of something greater than one’s self. That, alone, may even be incomprehensible. Wonder, on the other hand, is more about the reflection on an awesome thing/experience, and how one may relate to, or categorize that experience or thing.

For example, a trip to Niagara Falls inspires awe. The power of 757,500 gallons of water roaring thunderously over the equivalent of a 17-story building, every second, stuns the senses! But as one watches the Falls, it leads to reflection: what might it be like to ride over the edge, or how might that power be harnessed for good, and when and how did it all come to be? That is wonder!

Apparently, we desperately need both!

Wondering Together

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at U.C. Berkeley, and author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, has written extensively on how awe and wonder contribute to a healthier mind and outlook. Not only do they “drive people to paradigm-shifting discoveries and new technologies”, but they also encourage “people to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others”.

That makes sense.

When you are in the presence of someone/thing that defies easy comprehension, you are forced to transcend your normal way of perceiving. In this mind-expanding state, triggered by the moment of awe, new concepts and ideas gain an opportunity to slip into your consciousness, thereby allowing for new discoveries.

But even more important is what happens when we add wonder to the mix, and allow it to do its work. While awe moves us toward transcendence (pushing us beyond the limitations of our normal way of thinking and being) wonder asks us to consider new ways of relating and connecting! This creates an atmosphere that allows us to be available to form new connections with others – who may also be experiencing awe and wonder themselves – and it may allow for the reformation of old relationships.

The Truth About Us

Basically, awe and wonder move us outside of the narrow constrictions of the (supposedly) safe self. They allow us to consider what might be possible beyond the way that we have previously done things! We can see things differently, and grow in new directions; in short, awe and wonder allow us to evolve.

In recent times we have been so wrapped up in our individual views and opinions, and beliefs and perspectives, that we have almost become prisoners of our own limitations. We have produced tools and technology that were supposed to allow us to be more in touch with one another, but instead we have used those tools to reinforce the walls that we build to exclude those whom we perceive to be not of our clan.

Though we may not have been aware, we have been craving release; longing for something or someone to pull us outside of ourselves. So, when the earth shook, and the moon and sun performed their exquisite ballet amidst the heavens, we were reminded that greater things are above and around us! We were reminded that our thoughts and convictions aren’t the sum, nor the capstone of knowledge and truth; instead, they are but a beginning.

Awesome Sabbath

It is no wonder (no pun intended) that God constantly calls us to awe and to wonder. God continually urges us to consider a greatness that will lift us beyond ourselves – hopefully rescuing us from becoming idolaters of our own thoughts and considerations. I am reminded of the invitation found in Isaiah 40:26:

Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these things, who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, by the greatness of His might and the strength of His power; not one is missing.

Humanity needs this, and this is why Sabbath was given; we need to be drawn away from the narrow and petty limitations of our individual views, so that we can be challenged by the awe that comes from contemplating the things of God. We need to spend time in wonder, so that we can allow ourselves to reframe the way that we relate to things and people, and so that we might give consideration to making vital new connections!

It shouldn’t take an earthquake to move us, nor the darkness of an eclipse to reveal how blind we have been to the awe and wonder that exists all around us. But now that we’ve had both, wouldn’t it be a great time to become more intentional about cultivating a sense of both awe and wonder, freeing ourselves from the fears, prejudices and narrow perspectives that keep us from growing?


O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed:
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art!

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