The First Parish Blog

Our Awe-some Reality

By , Published on April 1, 2017

Some time ago, I found myself in Buffalo, New York, for a wedding. I had just twenty-four hours in Buffalo (had to get back to Boston for Sunday worship!) and a free afternoon before an opening reception. Thanks to Google Maps, I discovered I had enough time to take the public bus up to Niagara Falls. It was raining lightly, but my maid of honor (a meteorologist) assured me over text message that the storm would be gone by the time I arrived at the falls.

I had been to Niagara Falls on a school trip ages ago, but frankly I couldn’t remember much of anything about it. I kept my expectations low because of the weather and because I had been told my whole adult life that the American side of the Falls just wasn’t very impressive.

After an hour’s bus ride, I arrived in Niagara and walked into the park. I ambled along the river for a time, glancing now and again up the clouds and (I’ll admit) often down at my phone as a distraction from the gray day. “What was I thinking taking such a long ride all the way up here, and for what?” I asked myself… Then, when I had finally found my way to the main lookout, tada! the sun came back out (just as my dear friend predicted), and ping! the light ricocheted off the suddenly visible waterfall, and wow! I was in awe! The Falls were beautiful!

I can clearly remember other times when awe has overtaken me: kayaking with friends amidst the bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico; the view of Mount Rainer towering over the city of Seattle on my bus ride to work during my summer hospital chaplaincy residency; and, each time I have visited the Taj Mahal, which never fails to impress all over again.

But, one needn’t travel cross-country or around the world to stumble on awe. Research psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner told Parade magazine, “People often talk about awe as seeing the Grand Canyon or meeting Nelson Mandela, but our studies show it also can be much more accessible—a friend is so generous you’re astounded, or you see a cool pattern of shadows and leaves.”

This resonates with me, too, like when I’ve attended family weddings and reunions and I notice, yet again, common familial hand gestures, facial expressions, and laughter; or, when the tree down the street is suddenly awash in fall color or spring flowers; or, when our congregants shore up their courage to sing or play their instrument in front of the church — and they’re incredible.

I finish writing this article on the spring equinox, which means I’m very aware of the coming of spring and the trickling away of winter. This reminds me, once again, to take note of my immediate surroundings that are ever changing and not to be too lost in my head, in thoughts of other times or places. If I am not in the present moment, I lose any chance I have of being captured by the awe-some reality in which we live. There is much, big and small, with which to be amazed in our day-to-day lives.

I find the ability to connect with my surroundings with awe is particularly helpful during times of trial and stress. Many programs for people of all ages who have survived loss, trauma, addiction, and illness include access to and adventures in the great outdoors and the arts as part of their healing mission. Though there is always injustice, illness, and death lurking around corners, instead of letting fear or anger overwhelm my senses, I allow my senses to soothe me. Even if there is nothing particularly special to capture my attention, it is calming for me to consciously notice the shape of the clouds, the sound of the train whistle, the smell of new leaves and grass, the touch of the wind, the taste of my meals. And, sometimes, when I’m in such a mindful moment, I am rewarded with an awe-some experience!

Have you had a recent experience with awe?

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