We Need More Wonder and Awe

The moon landing was unifying and awe-inspiring. We need more of that.

Posted Jul 19, 2019

A. Syed / FreeImages
Source: A. Syed / FreeImages

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step onto the surface of the moon. People all across the globe looked up and knew that for the first time in history, one of us was out there. “For one priceless moment,” Nixon said in a phone call to the Apollo 11 astronauts, “all the people of this world are truly one.” 

Half a century later, we snipe at each other on social media; we complain to HR when we have disagreements with co-workers; we try to get professors fired for having “problematic” views. The only kind of collective engagement we seem willing to try is within our “tribes.” We experience connection by expressing our common enmity.

How can we reclaim our sense of unity? Being more educated won’t help. A recent study by the social scientists at More in Common found that more educated partisans are more likely than their less-educated peers to misunderstand their political opponents. No amount of data will resolve our misunderstandings either. Social science research consistently finds that even when presented with information that disconfirms our views, we stubbornly hold onto them.

We need another “priceless moment.” 

I remember learning as a child that there would one day be a new kind of spacecraft called a “space shuttle.” It would be able to take off like a rocket, orbit the Earth, and land like an airplane. It inspired in many schoolchildren a grand sense of exploration and adventure. Something that a few years earlier could only have been science fiction would become reality. The science of space travel, it seemed, could transcend the limits of our imagination.

Then, the International Space Station provided a way to transcend national boundaries in the service of something greater than even foreign policy. Former competitors in the race to space collaborated to create and sustain an orbiting laboratory.

In its heyday, the space program reminded those of us here on Earth that we were part of something bigger. It offered access to a kind of self-transcendence. What could be more transcendent than escaping the limits of our atmosphere? We watched space shuttle launches and landings and looked up at the sky, knowing that somewhere up there, a space station orbited the Earth. It seemed unimaginable, but sometimes we could see the space station making its way across the sky. (Today we hardly seem to remember that the Expedition 60 crew are up there. Do we ever think to look for it in the night sky?)

The way astronauts speak about seeing the Earth from space is deeply reverent. Their descriptions are infused with humility, wonder, and awe. After viewing our planet from space, they often report feeling a sense of connectedness to the Earth and a visceral grasp of our common humanity. Psychologists call this the overview effect

Gene Cernan observed that from space, “you don’t see the barriers of color and religion and politics that divide this world.” Edgar Mitchell described his experience as “nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness. I actually felt what has been described as an ecstasy of unity.” Kathryn D. Sullivan confessed that “no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires.”

Some psychologists say that the overview effect is also available as a result of surveying an expansive landscape, such as the Grand Canyon, or seeing the view from atop a mountain. But an astronaut’s profoundly distant perspective is something only a select few get to experience in a literal sense. Yet we can all do it metaphorically. The access is wonder and awe.

Wonder requires intellectual humility; we can't wonder if we already know. Awe is associated with a sense of collective engagement and oneness with others. But rather than taking even a 10,000-foot view, let alone a 250-mile view (as from the space station) or an almost 239,000-mile view (as from the moon), we hardly seem able to take a view from any farther than the distance between our smartphones and our faces. We are not having the transcendent experiences of unity that the emotions of wonder and awe provide. Instead of the perceptual and conceptual vastness necessary for self-transcendence, we take perspectives that are absurdly small and petty. 

We need something new in our space program. Or something—anything—to give us a sense of awe and wonder that reminds us that we all belong to the same human family. Until then, perhaps all we can do is look up and remember that a long time ago, one of us set foot on the moon for the first time. And for that brief moment, all the people of this world were truly one.

Pamela Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated.