When I started thinking about this piece, I was really thinking about the nature of things that appeal to us. I love tales of the supernatural, and I love Halloween in particular as a time to celebrate the supernatural and bring a little of it into our workaday lives.
There’s a reason that stories like The Wizard of Oz, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Narnia, Dracula, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Goosebumps and the Harry Potter books, are all so popular. It’s not just that they feature the supernatural and people living exciting lives – that’s part of their surface appeal. I believe the deeper appeal lies in that they allow ordinary people (and, through them, the reader) to be heroes. If you look at every protagonist’s journey, they all get to fight evil/monsters and become something larger than what they were at the start.
By reading their journeys, we experience the same emotions they do, and imagine ourselves in their shoes. In the really great stories, we experience awe.
Awe is an intense emotional state where we’re transported into a new universe – a place apart from our ordinary lives where we are engulfed in a larger consciousness. Awe makes us understand that our daily little problems are just that; that the political issues in the world are ridiculous posturing and power plays by leaders who rarely genuinely care about the people they are supposed to be serving. We get a glimpse of how magnificent life can be if we rise above all of the daily garbage.
We can experience awe in different ways.
Awe is a fundamental appeal of religion. I remember, as a child, trying to understand the world and the place of religion in it, having been raised as a Catholic and going to mass dutifully on the first Friday of every month to ensure my place in heaven. I loved the quiet parts of those early Friday morning masses – the soft flicker of candles, the hush of a nearly empty church when I could absorb the beautiful stained-glass windows transporting me to a time centuries ago when people got to meet Jesus in person.
One night I had a profound religious moment—I was thinking about the universe, and imagining what would happen if you had a giant blackboard eraser and started erasing us, and the planets, and the stars in the sky. What would you have left, I wondered, and it struck me that that was where God lived. I was so excited that I had to share it with my mom, who I was trying to comfort for some reason. I’m not sure I was able to explain it very well to her, at the age of about nine or ten years old, but it has stuck with me to this day.
A shared sense of awe can bring people together in powerful ways, and so the dark side of religion comes out when a religious leader begins to manipulate followers for his or her own ends. I’m still very spiritual, if not a frequently practising Catholic, because I prefer to believe that there is something beyond our short lives on earth, a more expansive universe where goodness exists for its own sake. However, as our spiritual leaders on earth are just human, like the rest of us, it’s critical that we apply objectivity to what they’re preaching, and can recognize when their teachings are oppressing any segment of their followers. Everyone on this earth should be equal.
Awe can be found throughout nature. A glorious sunset, the vast firmament of stars above us (hard to see when masked by city lights; if you’ve never appreciated them you should find a dark-sky preserve and take a look!), the power of waves pounding on a beach, the beauty in flowers and butterflies…
Humans and animals can fill us with awe, when someone does something amazing for the benefit of others, or delivers a powerful musical performance, or a pet saves its owners lives by alerting them to fire.
These moments of awe reaffirm our belief in goodness, a belief that gets battered daily by the news. It’s even worse now that we have news at our fingertips. The job of reporters is to attract our interest, and they rarely do it with feel-good stories. As a society we’ve gotten so caught up in the superficial stimulation from electronic media that we don’t take the time to cultivate the deeper emotions that come from quiet reflection and moments of awe that are all around us.
My personal journey of awe, the one that turned my entire life on its head and brought me to this place where I can help others experience awe for themselves and enter a larger universe, took place in Africa.
My husband and I had decided to celebrate our silver anniversary with a safari. I spent several years researching and planning, but by the time we left our home for Africa we were numb. Within the space of two years we’d had a death in the family and had to put both of our beloved dogs to sleep. My job had changed dramatically when my manager suddenly departed to pursue a different career, leaving the rest of our small department to flounder in deep waters. I remember walking around London, England, our first layover and a place we both love, feeling as if I was completely wrapped in cotton batten, insulated and separated from the outside world. It was a strange feeling.
Neither of us had great expectations of the trip – we try to experience each of our adventures as they unfold. We arrived in Africa just flowing with the current. Our safari guide met all of his seven guests at the small airport in Maun, Botswana, and loaded us into two small bush planes for the flight to our first bush camp deep in the Okavango Delta. Our little plane chugged along at 1,000 feet, low enough for us to see elephants and giraffes grazing among the acacia trees. When we landed on a short strip of sand in the middle of nowhere and piled into the open-sided safari truck for the hour-and-a-half drive through the bush to the camp, we were engulfed by the smell of the wild sage bushes – salty, pungent and unforgettable – scattered among the thorny acacias, tall and short palms, and towering termite mounds. Sights, sounds and smells bombarded our senses, and the cotton encasing our emotions started to disintegrate.
That night, we lay in our dome tents under the vast African sky, listening to the sounds of fruit bats and tree frogs all around, with nothing between us and the wild except a bit of canvas and meshing. Wild animals could easily prowl right up to our tents if they wished, and we’d been advised to go carefully and in pairs to the toilet tents during the night if we absolutely couldn’t wait until morning. I remember lying on my cot, snugly tucked under a duvet, and experiencing the awe of being in that legendary place. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, and it shredded the last of that awful, numbing shroud that I’d been living in for so many months.
Our safari was filled with amazing moments – staring into the golden eyes of a lion lying at the side of the road just a few feet away from our truck, watching an elephant spray muddy water over itself, seeing a leopard in the wild, watching a troop of baboons romp and squabble. When we visited Victoria Falls I just stood with my mouth hanging open – having lived in the vicinity of Niagara Falls for most of my life, I was prepared to be only mildly impressed. But watching millions of gallons of the Zambezi River thunder over the Falls with an almost deafening roar, and seeing the resulting mist billow a thousand feet into the air, we were awe-struck at the power of Nature.
We fell in love with lions when we went on a nature walk with two young rescued males, Langa and Loco. We walked the bush with them, held their tails and scratched behind their ears, watched them explore their world. They were utterly adorable and showed us another side beyond the majestic predator they would one day become.
It wasn’t only nature that wowed us – our safari guide, with his vast bush knowledge and cheeky sense of humour, all the staff at the four bush camps we stayed at and the lodges in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and the many other Africans we met, became like family. Their warm welcome and passion for their countries, their lack of materialism and deep relationship with nature, left an indelible impression on us.
By the end of the trip both my hubby and I were loathe to leave. We experienced intense culture shock arriving back home, and it took me a long, long time to find a way to integrate that experience into my regular life.
In the end, I decided that I wanted to help other people experience moments of awe and beauty, to understand what an incredible planet we live on if we take those first steps to transcend all the pettiness and materialism that seeps into our lives from outside forces.
We are one race of people, the Human Race, sharing our planet with animals, plants, insects, mountains, forests, oceans and rivers, sunsets and rainbows, and every part, down to the tiniest piece, is essential.
It’s easy to understand that, when you look around you and let awe in. It’s impossible to understand that when your face is glued to an electronic screen or your hearing is muffled by a headset. While I love a good computer game as much as the next person, and am, of course, bringing you this message through your computer or mobile phone, our attachment to electronics is increasingly isolating us from our fellow inhabitants on this grand planet. I believe we can trace a lot of troubles in our society to that source.
If you want to live in a larger world, one where you can see the best of humanity instead of the worst, where nature will fill you with both peace and awe in equal measure, where the universe can truly be seen in a grain of sand, a flower petal or the wings of a butterfly, you need only take those first steps along that path.