Finding Awe in the Ordinary

Father with infant in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York.

Michael via Flickr, cc by 2.0,

Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple, to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. —Abraham Joshua Heschel

As I stepped out of Seattle’s Asian Art Museum recently, I found myself behind a toddler trailing his mother, stopping regularly to explore people and things he encountered along the way. As our paths diverged, I heard him yell, “Papaaahh” to a man standing on the sun-drenched sidewalk not far away. “Sebaaasstian,” his father called back. “Papaaahh,” “Sebaaasstian,” they volleyed back and forth—a loving echo from son to father—until Sebastian happily sidled up to his dad. That playful exchange, calling one another into belonging, reeling each other into presence, was awe-inspiring, a moment of “reverential respect mixed with wonder.”

If we’re lucky, we chance upon many moments of awe in our life. In recent years, I’ve experienced more and more. It happens when I watch the maple leaves outside my window shiver in a breeze; notice the hilly landscape my comforter makes in the gray haze of morning; follow a pigeon wandering along the roof’s edge across the street just before the sun peeks up behind him; or appreciate a photo of a friend and her husband gazing at their grandson on his first birthday.

It doesn’t take seeing the Grand Canyon or Mt. Rainier from 20,000 feet to inspire awe, although that can do it!

But we can feel a sense of awe when we stop to notice life’s details, everyday miracles, kindness, or beauty. It often strikes me when I pull myself out of bumper-to-bumper mind traffic to notice what’s around me.

In just a few square feet in any direction in my neighborhood, there is much to inspire awe. An old brick building, whose walls have witnessed generations of workers from this Scandinavian seafaring community, reminds me of those that came before me and those who will walk these streets long after I’m gone. A father carrying his infant daughter, heart to heart, through the Sunday farmer’s market, touches me with how precious, tender, and, yes, ordinary it is.

In addition to the wonderful rush of experiencing awe, in a New York Times article, University of California professors and researchers, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, reported finding “that awe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities” and encourages us to be more generous to strangers. The Greater Good Science Center, which Keltner co-directs, also reported that awe may help boost our body’s immune system.

I’ve found it doesn’t take much to be awed. Just noticing. Like now, for instance. As I write, the sun streams in my window creating shadows of leaves dancing on my floor.

When I notice the beauty and extraordinary in the ordinary, something in me delights, softens, expands. I feel more connected to others, to nature, to mystery. 

But Piff and Keltner fear that “awe deprivation” has had a detrimental effect on society over the past 50 years. “People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others,” they wrote in the New York Times piece. “To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds.”

Awe is a gift we can give ourselves and invite in others when we take a moment to gaze out at the astonishing world around us, look up from the sidewalk, our desks, and smart phones. When you look up what do you see? 

Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.