In Praise of Being Temporarily Off-Kilter

Cultivating Awe, part 2

Big and Small Doses

Different people experience awe from different things. Overall, travel ranks high. A clear night and a star-filled sky gazed at for a while is also effective for many people. There are certain sensational films that can do it for a number of folks. Anything encountered in a massive quantity is liable to be awesome: a large school of fish, a vast field of tulips in bloom, a bustling market in India.

I mentioned previously a study where staring up at a building wasn’t as effective as staring up at tree. Although nature gets the edge, sometimes really large buildings can also be awesome. The new and the big gets our attention, forces us into the present moment. And, while a profound experience of the Grand Canyon, or standing underneath a massive murmuration of starlings can stay with you for the rest of your life, cultivating small doses of awe in the everyday boosts life satisfaction.

Can you have a small dose of bigness? Researchers into awe generally define it as “an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with the incomprehensibility of it all.” Is it possible to have that on a daily basis?

It’s a matter of being “temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world.” Part of that is taking yourself to unfamiliar places – exposing yourself to things you can expect to not understand at first.

Familiarity and Expertise

Another part of that is deciding to set aside your understanding. When we know a lot about something, our knowledge can actually get in the way of experiencing the thing fresh.

In his autobiography, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain explains how becoming knowledgeable and experienced about piloting steamboats on rivers changed his experience of rivers.
“Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!”
He then describes an experience before becoming expert in the ways of riverboating: seeing a beautiful and awe-inspiring sunset over the river.
“If that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion:
‘This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?'
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”
Twain is wonderful at making vivid and concrete the price we sometimes pay for knowledge and expertise. But were Twain my parishioner, I would challenge him to re-examine his feeling that awe was gone for good from the river. His focus on usefulness for “compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat” may have become a habit for him – but it is still a choice. He can choose to set that habit aside. He would have to deliberately try – and I’m not sure that occurred to him.

It is possible to have knowledge, but to intentionally, temporarily set it aside. Face the river with an intention of seeing it fresh, of opening yourself to the wonder of it again. Before his expertise, he didn’t have to choose that – a striking and beautiful scene simply slapped him in the face, willy-nilly. After expertise, the awe need not be gone for good. It just requires intentional attention to cultivate.

The Way Your Fingers Tie Your Shoe

Twain then makes an analogy that I think betrays his claim of permanent loss. He says,
“I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”
Perhaps you are, like me, wondering: did Mark Twain ever talk to a doctor about this? In my experience, doctors of either gender are as apt as anyone to notice and appreciate human beauty when they see it outside the context of professional diagnosis.

As a doctor can set aside diagnosis, and a riverboater, when not engaged in riverboating, can set aside the diagnosis of the river, so you and I can intend to set aside, temporarily, our knowledge of the familiar objects and procedures of our day. Decide, for example, to watch with amazement the intricate and flowing way that your fingers move when you tie your shoe.

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This is part 2 of 3 of 'Cultivating Awe'
See also
Part 1: Too Busy? Maybe You Need Some Awe
Part 3: In Praise of Not Knowing

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