We overuse the word -- yet there are plenty of things that can leave you truly awestruck. Go find them.
Colquet Valley State Forest, 11/7/2004 (For Wednesday 11/17/04 Outdoors page.) Even before dusk had settled below the western horizon, the Northern Lights were performing a spectacular show for hunters who found them selves in the woods Sunday evening. A magical ending to a successful deer hunting opener.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. ... He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead." (Albert Einstein)
Encounters with mystery never leave us. Moments when we have experienced true wonder and awe remain treasured memories, provoking gratitude and bonding us with others.
Yet many in today's society lack regular encounters with awe. Many of us live out rhythms of days and weeks that may be necessary and meaningful in some ways, but that fail to inspire. We may reminisce about times where we have been awestruck in the past. Yet we forget about the possibility of awe today.
In fact, even the meaning of awe appears to be lost on us. Harvard psychology Prof. Steven Pinker noted that there was a time when the word "awesome" was reserved to describe truly inspiring experiences. Now many people use the word "awesome" to describe almost anything positive.
On his popular blog "1000 awesome things," Neil Pasricha has been writing about one "awesome" thing every weekday since June 2008. Recent examples include "putting a slice of lasagna on a plate and having it all stay together," "taking your makeup off after wearing it for hours" and "eating a free sample of something when you have no intention of buying."
Of course these are nice experiences. But they don't reflect the historical understanding of awe.
In his book "Born to be Good." Berkeley psychology Prof. Dacher Keltner refers to awe as an emotion elicited when someone perceives something to be so vast or "great" that an entirely new kind of thought process or belief is necessary. Awe appears to consist of elements of surprise, fear and confusion, and it may have a distinct physiology (for example, a unique facial expression and "goosebumps"). Things that often trigger awe include locations with great size, beauty or history; feats of great skill or virtue; uplifting music; being in the presence of a powerful leader, and encounters with the divine.
Many of us long for awe. As we move toward summer, we would do well to put ourselves and our loved ones in situations that are conducive to awe. Perhaps we could take a trip to the North Shore to take in waterfalls and Lake Superior, or to the Boundary Waters, or the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota, or the prairies of southwestern Minnesota. Maybe we could go camping and gaze at the stars or, if we're fortunate, at the northern lights. Maybe we could take in the architecture and craftsmanship of the chapel at Lakewood Cemetery, the James J. Hill House or the Cathedral. Possibly we could visit the Tyrannosaurus Rex exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota or the Indian Burial Mounds in St. Paul. We could stare into the eyes of one of the large mammals at one of our zoos. Or we might attend a concert by one of our great orchestras, view the art at one of our great museums or watch a performance at one of our great theaters.
A renewed desire to be awestruck can transform our lives. As John O'Donohue once said: "Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits."
Andy Tix and Myles Johnson teach psychology at Normandale Community College. Tix blogs at thequestforagoodlife.wordpress.com.