Awe is Scary Wonder

Why Is There Awe? part 1

Rosh Hashanah is called "the days of awe." It's also called "the days of repentance." It's interesting that awe and repentance are combined in this way. What’s the connection, you think? How do awe and repentance connect? You’ve got 10 days to reflect on that.

One connection is that both awe and repentance involve setting aside our ego defenses, getting out of own way. They remind us, “it’s not about me.” This message is always challenging. It comes to us this Rosh Hashanah in the midst of the special challenges of a Presidential election. The candidates are trying as hard as they can to say “it is all about me.” And despite ourselves we are apt get pulled in to that style of thinking.

But it’s not about me, or you, or them.

Yes, we need our ego defenses. We also need to see how control is an illusion – and let something bigger – something wider or higher or deeper – take control. Remember again that the self that dreams itself to be in control is not separate, and therefore has nothing to control.

In this time for turning, we confront the paradoxical truth that we have the ability to change – that turning does not come easily – that unless we turn we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways – while at the same time recognizing that we can’t make the turning happen.

Our ego selves cannot turn us. They can, at best, conspire with the greater forces of friendship and family, of stars and trees and nature, of all our relationship – for in the end there is no self other than a web of relationship. Which might be called God – and by whose grace we might yet turn. So today, as we begin the Days of Awe, I want to reflect with you on how Awe turns us, gets us out of our way, fills us up with a spirit not of our own making, reveals to you the truth that it’s not about you.

One way to get a good picture of awe: next time you’re on Youtube, try searching “baby in tunnel.” You’ll see small children riding their car seats as the car enters a tunnel. Their faces show surprise and confusion – wonderment mixed with fear – in other words, awe. Their current understanding – their frame of reference – can’t accommodate this new experience. For them, it’s a transformative experience. Those videos are a great illustration of awe.

There’s a lot of overlap with “wonder” – that feeling of surprise and admiration caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Awe is like wonder, but with some scariness mixed in. “Shock and awe,” for example, is a military strategy of overwhelming force to stun and scare the enemy into inability to fight. The Hebrew Bible mentions awe a number of times – and it’s a mixture of great reverence and fear.

Awe is scary wonder.

Psalm 119 says “My flesh trembles for fear of you, and I am afraid of your judgments” (NRSV). Other translations give “stand in awe” or “tremble in awe” in place of “am afraid.” Have you felt that? Profound wonder mixed with fear? As I wrote in this month’s issue of “On the Journey”:
When I think back on some of the most significant moments in my life – usually events that were firsts: my first high school debate tournament, first date, first kiss, first job interview, my wedding day, becoming a parent – one thing is clear: I was scared. I was trembling in fear. The body’s fear response, with accompanying adrenaline, is what let me knows: “Hey, there’s something really, really important here.” Fear gets your attention -- and that’s a good thing. The fear I felt made those events so meaningful for me. Those were moments when I understood that something was about to happen that would change my sense of who I was.
Awe is intensified wonder. If the wonder starts to get close to overwhelming, starts to unnerve you, starts to unsettle your unquestioned sense of who you are, putting in question what you took for granted, then there’s some fear that comes with that. That’s what turns wonder into fear. To get to awe, start with wonder and dive in until it spooks you just a little bit.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Why Is There Awe?"
See also
Part 2: What Evokes Awe?
Part 3: Simultaneous Experience of Opposites

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