He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. — Albert Einstein
In today’s youth culture, “awesome” has become an over-used term of glib approval, applied to everything from tasty tacos to tri-colored tattoos to Tim Tebow’s torso. If one word can be a cliché, awesome qualifies. Truly.
But I believe the word remains valuable when used carefully and more narrowly, consistent with its earlier meanings. “Awesome” entered widespread use with the first English versions of the Bible, which described God as awesome and alternatively as terrible—i.e., one who produced wonder and reverence in people that was tinged with fear and terror. The word then morphed to refer not to the source of awe but also to the person experiencing it, who was filled with awe, as in awe-full. And somewhere along the etymological line, awe-full and awesome diverged, and nowadays awful simply means bad, whereas awesome simply means good … dude.
Maybe there is bad awe and good awe, but I prefer to be old school and use awe to mean wonder tinged with fear—good and bad intermingled. That sense of awesome is complex and a worthy word when warranted.
Tacos don’t qualify as awesome, nor tattoos. Even Tim Tebow doesn’t qualify, although I wish him well.
When did I last experience awe as I prefer to use the term?
That is an easy question to answer. I was fortunate enough to visit Japan in the summer of 2012 and even more fortunate to go on a tour of Kyoto that included a stop at Sanjūsangen-dō, a Buddhist temple that is a long rectangular building in which stand one thousand life-size statues of the Buddha, arranged precisely in 10 rows and 100 columns. Carved from cypress wood and golden in color, these statues date to the 13th century and even earlier. At first glance, they look the same. On closer scrutiny, each is different—face, clothing, and jewelry. My tour guide said that each statue had an actual person as its model, often someone who had donated money to the temple. Maybe he was teasing, but I suspect an actual model did inspire each statue. The sheer number of the statues, coupled with their similarity and uniqueness, stopped me in my tracks. I kept muttering “Wow” and did not want to leave the temple. I was in awe.
Did I also experience terror? Not in the sense of being on an airplane during a turbulent flight, but in an existential sense. I thought of my own mortality. What would I leave behind? Likely not a gilded statue that would survive for many centuries. Regardless, I did have the thought that whatever legacy I might leave and however short or long it might last, I hoped it would be one that included what I shared with other people as well as what I uniquely contributed.
As I left the thousand Buddhas, my thoughts turned to another awesome experience from a few years prior: the 8000 Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi'an, China that date to the 3rd century BC. Like the thousand Buddhas, the Terra Cotta warriors are life-sized statues. Like the thousand Buddhas, they look the same at first glance but in actuality are all unique, supposedly modeled on actual soldiers from many centuries ago. Again, an awe-inspiring experience.
And I thought of the more contemporary but equally awe-inspiring Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, a somber wall on which are inscribed the names of the 58,272 Americans who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. It is difficult to believe that the Wall was initially controversial. I have visited it numerous times, and all visitors there whisper. At a distance, the names blur together and look the same. Up close, each of course is unique.
Just outside Washington, DC, in Virginia, is Arlington National Cemetery, a United States military cemetery in which are interred the remains of 300,000 war casualties and veterans. The gravestones look much the same, until one gets close enough to read the identifying information on each.
One more example of my own awe entails the Virginia Tech Memorial honoring members of the university community who lost their lives in the 2007 shooting spree. There are 32 stones, one for each victim, carved from the beloved limestone—aka Hokie Stone—long used for constructing Virginia Tech buildings. Each stone is the same. And each is unique. I was a faculty member at Virginia Tech between 1981 and 1986, and knew well the buildings where the shootings occurred. I visited the memorial a few years ago. I will not even try to convey the details of what I experienced upon my visit, but awe is a good umbrella term.
Positive psychologists have on occasion addressed awe, usually in terms of the moral elevation experienced when we see nature or observe heroic actions by exceptional others (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). The sort of awe I am describing is a bit different but incredibly important. It is awe about people collectively, including us. We are all the same, and each of us is unique, certainly in death but also in life. May we all stop and notice.