An Ode to Awe
[Dedicated to my good friend and Mentor, Maurice Friedman, on the Occasion of the Rollo May Award, Saybrook Graduate School, 16 Jan. 2008]
I believe in awe.
The awesomeness of life, of being, is inexhaustible. No matter what we lose, fear, or despise, it is there. It is there at our darkest hour, in trial as in devastation, in life as in death; because it is beyond life and death, trial and devastation.
It’s not that it is readily accessible, perceivable, or even conceivable; at our worst times, it is opaque.
However, awe is available and that availability can be realized in an instant or a lifetime.
Fifty years ago, when I was two and a half, I lost my seven year old brother to a disease of the heart. Thirty four years ago, when I was 18, I lost my uncle to a massive heart attack; and then my father, five years later, to the same malady.
Now I’m 52--almost the same age as my father when he died--and live in this very selective mystery. The doctors have all assured me that I’m doing all one can. I take the right pills, eat the right foods, and exercise—but still (and naturally, I believe), I wonder.
I convey these episodes, not to elicit sympathy from the listener, but to illustrate a point: following each one of these upheavals, I learned something crucial about awe. The first thing I learned is that no matter how desperate I got--no matter how warped and whipped by mystery, I did not need to extinguish mystery. I needed neither pills nor dogma to contort it. Not to say that I was some kind of superman, impervious to hurt; quite the contrary. I took some desperate measures on occasion and erected my own barriers against mystery.
However, in the long run, and with the help of some profoundly healing encounters, I realized that the answer lied not in the neutralizing, but in the illuminating; not in the resolving but in the venturing. I--like a growing number of fellow strugglers today--found solace in awe.
Awe is the God beyond God, the origin and the destination, the expanding question and the expanding answer. It is our humility and wonder before creation; our astonishment before creation. Awe is neither the bliss-filled light nor the despair-riddled dark—it is the MORE—whether bliss-filled or desperate.
Awe connects us with creation. But not the creation of commandments; the creation of amazement, vastness.
Awe, finally, is our fundamental connection to mystery--the source and destination of our being; I am very grateful to have met you there Maurice—warmest wishes on the award!
Note: Parts of this blog have been adapted from my book "Awakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation" (Jason Aronson, 2009). Maurice Friedman, friend, mentor, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at San Diego State University and leading Martin Buber scholar has recently passed away, and this blog is dedicated to him.