Wonder and awe

A couple of days ago I had occasion to remember, once again, the words of a minister who served my congregation for a time. He was an intellectually gifted man, and understood organizational dynamics implicitly. The dude had skillz, credentials – he had been employed as a marine geologist during his lifetime and I found articles that he had published during his career. A Harvard graduate, he returned to Harvard Divinity School after a successful gig in science. I once asked him why in the world he had decided to become a minister, after having been invested in science all his life. He said, very simply, “Science didn’t answer all my questions.”. I’ve never forgotten that, nor some of the brilliantly simplistic wisdom he dropped. One of the morsels I’ve munched on for while now is this: “To know you, I don’t need to know where you come from, or what you do, or the education you’ve received. Tell me your story, tell me what gives you awe and wonder. Then I’ll know who you are.”

Awe and wonder. I’ve contemplated for a while now what exactly gives me awe and wonder. Sometimes, I believe it to be the utmost respect that I have when encountering some exemplary and stellar human attribute, a talented musician or athlete, a brilliant artist, a breathtaking intellect or activist. Those are concerned with the bell curve of human attribution, and deserving of respect for sure, but I’m not entirely sure those are worthy of my wonder. Frequently, I am awe struck by the accomplishments of humans, and that’s appropriate. The young woman who read the jaw-dropping poetry at the Presidential inauguration this year was, in my opinion, deserving of something beyond simple respect. She got my attention and utmost respect, and I had no words to describe the emotion her poetry evoked. That’s rare, but I’m not sure it really captured awe for me. My response was still in the realm of human talent, comparison to my own feeble efforts, to the product of others in the genre. Very much concerned with the work that humans do.

Having no words to describe an emotional response is very close to what I describe as wonder, or awe. For me, though, actual wonder, awe, the inability to categorize or find words to describe sensory input…that childlike pinpoint of new experience that has no previous reference…it’s new…and there is the inability to describe it because you cannot compare it to anything else. And so you say nothing, but your body expresses what is generally … joy. That is awe and wonder for me. When I am struck stupid by something so over the top that my brain cannot respond, only my emotions, only my sense. When I have no words, no “this is like” or “this is the most” or even “this is so over the top”. The response is entirely visceral, and I will tend to feel it in my gut, and sometimes in my head. Mouth forms a perfect oval, shoulders rise in expectation, diaphragm drops, the body invites more pleasure. Pleasure, without the brain. An interesting concept.

When I am experiencing awe, or wonder, it is frequently by something in the natural world. Lightning, volcanoes, fire, earthquakes, raging seas, waterfalls…those all cause me to inhale deeply, pause, and become very humble. Those natural events speak to me of power, true power. The power humans claim is only accrued by agreement of other humans. No human being can evoke the power inherent in nature, and believing that we can is merely hubris. Seeing photos, or better yet video, of a volcanic eruption always provokes a state of humility. The power of the Earth to catapult boulders, some weighing tons, miles into the air is nearly beyond my comprehension. Melting rocks into molten syrup that burns for days is utterly phenomenal to my puny human brain. We cannot harness, nor reproduce, that kind of power. We just have to get out of the way and let Mother Nature do her thing.

Observing demonstrations of the power of the natural world lets me know that I have questions that can’t be answered by my brain, or anyone else’s brain. We can explain why volcanic eruptions occur, but we can’t control them. We understand how the planet’s tilted axis brings on tidal forces and governs the waters, but we can’t control that, either. We actually can’t control very much in the natural world, so one would think we’d learn to live with it a little better than we do, but…maybe we’re just not that bright. We believe everything in the natural world is here to serve us, here to make our lives easier. I’m not sure that’s the way it goes, because when our fragile bodies get too big for our britches, the planet bitch slaps us into reality. Enter novel corona viruses like Ebola, and COVID-19. Enter influenza, HIV, and others I haven’t heard of. Science has told us that destruction of other natural resources on the planet, like the rainforests, has allowed these microbes to flourish and spread into ecosytems where humans are more abundant. And viruses do what they do, they attempt to survive by any means necessary, including killing their hosts. So, we’re not entirely victims of some malevolent life form as we are harbingers of it; we’ve created an atmosphere where naturally mutating life forms can thrive. Just like we did when the primordial ooze was getting its act together back in the day.

Whenever I try controlling something that is not mine to control, things go badly. I have to work very hard to get anything done toward the goal of control (hey, that rhymes!), and that makes me irritable and tired. But, I continue to force the issue. When I was employed by the corporate capitalist fascist pigs (I’m sure they were very nice people, though), there was actually a performance goal that said “Drives for results”. Drives for results. Hm. Sometimes the results are untenable, or shortsighted, or unethical even. But your competence is assessed by how well you blindly drive for the results somebody else has derived, and truth be told, those results are beneficial only to them (and there’s a dollar underneath that for sure – bonus, bonus, bonus). If you’re really a good employee, you’ll buy into that punishment/reward scheme and “drive for results” like you’re told. I had problems with that, because sometimes those results weren’t what people needed. Those results weren’t what anyone needed. But, just follow orders. Or you’re going to be sorry. You just wait and see. I’m sure they think I’m sorry…and I was at first when they kicked me to the curb…but now I’m not sorry at all. I have at least a large part of my self respect back, and I’m not merely surviving. I don’t want to merely survive anymore…I’m too old for that now. I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time just surviving and doing the obligatory things, so…fuck all y’all. There. That felt better.

Anyhow, I enjoy having awe. It takes me out of my head, it takes me out of the expectation that I should be happy all the time, that I’m entitled to that. It gives me the element of surprise, unexpected, but welcomed…and not something I engineered or manipulated. Seeing something that evokes a sensation of awe is like receiving an unexpected gift from an old friend, for no reason. Just because they were thinking of you, and thought it would make you happy. No other reason, not even sure it would, but here it is. Do with it what you will. It’s just a gift, not expecting anything in return. But it would be nice if you did return it, gave something back…somewhere, somehow. It’s more an energetic thing, not a score-keeping thing. Scores are for competitions, not for love. And I suppose that’s what gifts of awe and wonder are really about…love of the unexpected, love of self and the ability to wonder and dream and fancy.

When I experience wonder it causes the Muse to visit, it causes my creativity to spark like lightning, with no clue or expectation about where it might land. For others, it could be different, but that’s how it works for me. When I douse those sparks, I suffer. When I don’t allow the sparks to catch fire, they smolder underground, and damage roots and budding life forms. When I allow other people to throw water on my fire, I resemble the iconic scene from the Wizard of Oz and begin melting, and begin a swivel into oblivion. I don’t want to be oblivious. Living in oblivion sounds nice, because you figure you don’t have to worry about anything, but it’s an illusion. The worries are still there, and for me, those were the monsters under the bed that I figured would eventually consume me in some horrid fashion. Living in fear of your own life is kind of a drag. Being a victim of your own life is an even bigger drag, because then you have to hate yourself. Victimizing yourself would be kind of funny if it wasn’t so sad., I suppose…but let’s just not do that. Self-acceptance, though, can be a difficult thing, so bow down. We don’t all get here by the easiest of paths, and I have to respect that. I have to.

Awe. Wonder. The human body gives me awe and wonder, actually. Mine in particular. There are miles and miles of gastric tract, miles and miles of cellular connections, nerves, blood vessels, muscle fibers, bones. Personally, I think the human body has more than a couple of design flaws, but that’s just me…I mean, who ever would think of putting the anus THERE? Or the colon? And what the hell is the appendix doing in the first place? But, I digress…anyway, it amazes me that so much of bodily functions are entirely involuntary, entirely unconscious. It does what it does, and that’s all it does. Rivers flow, waterfalls drop, volcanos erupt…the planet does what it does, and that’s all that it does. I have SOME control over my body, but some things are immutable – like my skin color, my eye color, my height, how my demented brain works. Some other stuff, though, I can move around, like puzzle pieces. It’s definitely like a jigsaw puzzle, so it’s interesting to see how the picture comes out. Right now, I’m hoping that I’ve got the edge pieces in the right order, so I am gonna start moving the inside pieces around a bit. Trial and failure. One piece, or maybe a couple, at a time. Eventually, I have to believe it will all come together. I have to believe.

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

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