Among the most overused words in America today, awesome is at the top of the list. Everything’s awesome: a funny YouTube video, a new pair of shoes, a touchdown in a football game, Grandma’s potato salad.
Awe, however, is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” It’s the feeling of being in the presence of something much greater than ourselves, something significant that’s beyond our understanding.
When did you actually last experience this feeling? What were you doing? Gazing up at the star-filled night sky? Listening to a work of musical genius? Holding your newborn baby in your arms? Worshipping God? Being enveloped by the presence of the Holy Spirit during prayer?
One of my strongest recent experiences of awe occurred during adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville, NC. I also experience this feeling at every Mass I attend, during the epiclesis of the Eucharistic Prayer.
Hopefully, you experience awe often. Studies show that people who feel awe on a regular basis enjoy many benefits. They are happier, less stressed, and more creative. They are more curious and, therefore, more innovative. They feel kinder, more generous, and more cooperative; thus, they tend to build stronger social groups and communities. They may even have stronger immune systems and an enhanced ability to fight disease.
If awe is lacking in your life, it could be because, according to psychology professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, our culture is increasingly awe-deprived. Americans spend so much time working and being busy that we rarely enjoy nature and arts events. Due to the elimination of art programs from schools, our children have fewer opportunities to explore and create. As a result, we have become disconnected from opportunities to experience awe.
To improve our lives, we should frequently and consciously seek out situations that may provoke awe. I’ve found that they’re all around us if we slow down long enough to notice.