Kindness and Awe
“Be kind to one another…” Ephesians 4:32
Last month Parade magazine published an article on awe. In this article the author, Paula Spencer Scott describes how the emotion of awe is getting more and more attention from researchers. She said, “new studies show that it’s a dramatic feeling with the power to inspire, heal, change our thinking and bring people together.” Scott quotes Dacher Keltner’s, head of the University of California Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab, definition of awe: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things.”
It is likely that all of us have had experiences of awe. If you use Keltner’s definition of awe then most, if not all, of our religious experiences include an element of awe. After all, when you encounter God you are encountering “something vast or beyond human scale,” something “that transcends our current understanding of things.” Many of our reactions of awe are triggered by nature. It could be looking at the Milky Way on a clear night, watching a newborn fawn take its first steps, observing a sunrise, or standing before a booming waterfall. God’s Creation offers us a multitude of opportunities to experience awe.
The current studies on awe are revealing some interesting results. One such result is that awe has a way of binding people together. In a moment of awe we may very well come to realize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves and begin to think more in terms of we than me. Related to this, research indicates that awe makes us nicer. In one study a group of participants were divided up. One group was asked to spend a whole minute looking at an impressive stand of North America’s tallest eucalyptus trees while the other looked at a plain building. It will come as no surprise that those who looked at the trees reported greater awe. What is a bit surprising is something else that was included in this study. When a tester “accidently” dropped pens in front of the subjects the awestruck ones helped pick up way more than the ones who had gazed at the building. There is apparently some connection between awe and kindness.
If this is indeed true, then we would all benefit by seeking to bring more awe and wonder into our lives. During the recent election season I saw several memes on Facebook with the caption “Make America Kind Again.” I doubt that there is anyone who would deny that there is a shortage of kindness these days. If awe can help make us kinder then we should take advantage of this connection and encourage others to do the same. If we know, for example, that awe is invoked by being present in beautiful places then we should seek these out. Awe may likewise be sought out by listening to inspiring music or reading good poetry. It can often be found in personal and corporate expressions of worship.
I urge you to find ways to bring more awe into your life. Do this for your own soul’s sake and for the good of others. Hopefully experiencing more awe will, in fact, lead us to think more in terms of “we” than “me” and make us kinder people too. Hopefully it will draw us closer to God.
(I took the top image at Henderson Sloughs WMA, the middle image at Hoosier National Forest, and the bottom image in the eastern Sierra mountains.)