it’s #poetrytuesday again. I hope your week is going super well. if it’s not, I hope this wee poem brightens your day.
the older I get (which isn’t very old at this point), the more I feel that awe has a way of bringing us home. home to ourselves. our bodies. our loves. our people, our needs, our desires, our families, our places.
awe grants us the sense of smallness we need to put things in perspective. it allows us to step back and appreciate that life isn’t always what we expected, but that life gives us opportunities to learn.
this ties into my sense of faith, my understanding of God, and my spirituality, which are all deeply personal and I really don’t talk about that much (don’t any of you go expecting that to change too quickly, either 😂). but to put it very briefly, my sense of awe is my childish, finite sense of the immense scale and breadth of things, and whenever I feel this awe, I also feel that the universe is alive and good, however terrifying, however full of darkness, however painful. it’s my smallness and wonder and relative lack of strength–rather than my anxiety or ability to control–that shows me how wonderful the world really is and ironically encourages me to become stronger for the sake of exploring it, appreciating it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about place lately, too. so many places are elevated above others (national parks versus your local park, or the Colorado River versus the Allegheny). but I’ve been thinking of the moments where I allow awe to step inside, and how little that often has to do with the “Instagrammable” beauty of a place. if I allow awe to lead me to a posture of teachability, all places become entities that have something to teach, and the place I inhabit becomes a hub of life with stories to tell me, stories to appreciate, stories from which to learn. each place has something to say about the nature of life, adaptation, survival, and our role as humans on this planet. awe shows us this.
this ties into my anthropological understanding of the ‘ethnosphere’—to borrow from anthropologist Wade Davis–and the theory of cultural ecology. these ideas state that culture is in and of itself an adaptation to our many physical environments, and that culture speaks to the intersecting natures of people, creatures, and places.
the idea of the ‘ethnosphere’ holds that the many processes of human adaptation are worthwhile and valuable to humanity as a whole. to quote Wade Davis, ‘Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.’ these manifestations of the human spirit within different environments, different places, offer us perspectives on our planet, our resources, ourselves, other species, and the sheer breadth and flexibility of human nature.
this is another thing awe gives us: it helps us see others in some kind of perspective, as limited as our perspectives will always be, as incomplete as our empathy will always be.
it is our inherent finitude as human beings that points to another truth: that awe is at times an utterly terrifying experience. there is a reason that ‘awe’ and the word ‘awful’ are etymologically linked.
according to the etymonline dictionary, ‘awe’ originally meant ‘fear, terror, great reverence’ (read: some serious goddamn respect), and has roots in the Old Norse word ‘agi’, meaning ‘fright.’ that word, in turn, has its roots in Proto-Germanic ‘agiz’, meaning fear, and Proto-Indo-European ‘agh-es’, meaning ‘to be depressed, to be afraid.’
today, our sense of ‘awe’ is defined as a mixture of dread with veneration, admiration, and even spirituality. I like this slightly cosier definition, but I think that the ancient roots in fear and fright have their merit. we can’t have true awe without that deep respect, without our smallness carrying a sense of risk and weight and even the unimportance of the individual self. a healthy relationship to awe and to the places we inhabit has to include a way of feeling and relating to fear, a way of acknowledging the risks inherent in our smallness, rather than shutting it down or ignoring that real fear.
and so I encounter the paradoxes of awe. my smallness and the sense of the scale of our world are both comforting and terrifying, all at once. on one hand, fear and awe have driven our cultural adaptations as a human species—we have built boats, tamed wolves, and cured diseases. we have mastered desert and arctic alike.
as I circle these ideas, I feel a true sense of awe—terror, respect, reverence, admiration—for us as a human species. our creativity, our destructiveness, our capacity for good and ill.
in this age of social media marketing, of environmental disaster, of political upheaval, it is awe that both stuns me silent and drives me forward.
it is awe that makes me want to run away from life’s challenges, but it is awe that brings me back.
it is awe that encourages me to feel that happiness, peace, and wonder can only be found right here with eyes wide open, in this heart, and beneath these mighty skies.