Awe inspiring

Turning to Spirituality, a new series

Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

“Let’s go on an adventure!” my grandchildren clamor, having picked up my daily refrain. Some days we’ve scouted out all the produce of a specific color in the market, picking one to take home for a taste. Others have involved baby chicks at the farm feed store, spin-art projects, a new playground, or gourd picking for the sukkah.

Recently, we went to a teacher’s store where we found child-sized magnifying glasses. Proudly wielding their treasures throughout a nearby park, the children intently examined tree bark, rubber mulch, and crawling insects with much awe.

Dr. Caryn Aviv tells a very different story about her college undergrads. Despite being surrounded by the gorgeous natural views and “purple mountain majesties” ringing Boulder, Colo., they’re all glued to smartphone screens as they cross the campus.

“I wondered whether my students were suffering from an emerging form of ADD: Awe Deficit Disorder,” she writes. When gently encouraged to “Look up, look at the sky, it’s awesome!” most students would look up — and then return to their phones.

“But one student looked me right in the eye, and said, ‘OMG. You’re right,’” Aviv recounts. “Then she looked up at the sky, smiled, and put her phone in her pocket.”

Candace R. Kwiatek
Candace R. Kwiatek

We can see it in young children, that natural ability to experience awe. Why do so many of us seem to lose it by the time we’re adults?

“As we grew, did we substitute certainty for wonder?” asks Rabbi David Wolpe. Or maybe we’ve simply become oversaturated.

“How many times did you use the word ‘awesome’ today?” asks comedian Jill Shargaa in her hilarious TED talk. Awesome now describes everything from a Panera salad to a new bike, a business pitch to a Disney vacation. None of which are awesome.

Inspired by that which is grand, powerful, or unknown, awe is an overwhelming feeling of admiration, respect, or reverence mixed with surprise, wonder, or fear. It’s an awareness of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self, something that we can’t entirely grasp or explain.

Psychologists consider awe one of the self-transcendent emotions like compassion and gratitude that draw us out of our self-absorption and egocentric worldview.

Individuals who experience awe are more likely to exhibit generosity and helpfulness, an increase in volunteering and altruistic behavior, and decreased entitlement, reports Positive Psychology essayist Birgit Ohlen.

Thus, awe-filled experiences are likely fundamental to building the skills for social interaction — for relating to others, for developing relationships.

An awesome experience is a little like stepping into outer space: so vast, so extraordinary that it involuntarily adjusts our understanding of the world and ourselves.

As reported by psychology professor Jesse Graham and science writer Sarah Estes in their essay, Awe and the Experience of Self-Transcendence, numerous scientific studies have shown that awe reduces people’s tolerance for uncertainty and, logically, increases the perception that another author’s hand — human or divine — is involved in what we experience. Awe is therefore foundational to spirituality, God, and religion.

Children have a natural ability to be awestruck. What can we learn from them, and how can we enhance a sense of awe in our lives as well as theirs?

Be in the moment. With all their senses, children dwell fully in the moment, absorbing every aspect of the experience. And the most important moment is now. They can’t be rushed. Like children, be a portrait in mindfulness.

Hide the calendar, turn off the phone, and ignore the clock. Awe appears only when you’re fully present.

Don’t multitask. Children focus intently on whatever object or experience has captured their interest. They use their senses, their brain, and their imagination to make sense of one thing at a time. Children don’t multitask. How can you have an awestruck moment when you allow other stimuli to redirect your attention?

Practice gratitude. Children see beauty and find the awesome in the ordinary. Discover things to appreciate about the world you live in. Make a daily habit of identifying three things for which you are grateful and say them aloud. Learn the Shehecheyanu, the gratitude blessing, and use it regularly. Invent your own words of blessing and gratitude.

Cultivate wonder. Even as they seek to understand the world, children cherish it: every pebble, every bug. Before we can experience awe, we first have to cultivate a sense of wonder by cherishing the world.

Rabbi David Wolpe cautions, “If we aren’t careful, growing up can mean…neglecting to notice that the world is charged with magic.”

Contemplate in silence. Children are often silent for long periods after which they are likely to share a discovery or new insight. There’s purpose for the bench in the garden, the stroll through the park, the drive into the country. Don’t ignore the power of contemplative silence.

Go on an adventure! Invite your children to come along with you. Either they will teach you about awe, or you will learn together. Experience awesome a little more. Use “awesome” a little less. Put your phone in your pocket and look up.


Literature to share

Journey through Jerusalem by Amanda Benjamin. Follow the journey of four lively cats as they explore some of Jerusalem’s most notable sites. The combination of whimsical captions, cartoons kittens, and photographic images creates an introduction to this special city that is especially inviting for the early childhood set.

After Anatevka by Alexandra Silber. What happens after the Jewish townsfolk are evicted from Anatevka? Hodel, Tevye the milkman’s second-eldest daughter, takes center stage in this well-crafted and thoroughly delightful imaginative sequel to Fiddler on the Roof and Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories. Infused with historical reality, populated by memorable characters, and enhanced by evocative soliloquies and flashbacks, this tale is as much about heroism as it is about love. Highly entertaining, and a must for those who love the original.

To read the complete August 2017 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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