A sense of awe

Albert Einstein in His Study

There are two quotes from Einstein that I particularly like:

“There are two ways to live your life, one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”

“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”

I think I largely agree with both of these sentiments. For many people, me included, the world often appears to be a very workaday place. We drink, eat, breathe, work and live for 70 years and then die. Where are the miracles to be found in this everyday stuff?

Yet to some unusual people such unexceptional things are sources of interest. Isaac Newton wondered why objects stick to the earth rather than floating away into space. Most people wouldn’t even have thought of the question, let alone found an answer. Had Isaac Newton asked me why I thought things didn’t just float away I would have told him to grow up and stop acting all mysterious. I wouldn’t have thought this phenomenon needed explaining.

For such a person the world must be a more interesting place than it is for me. Clearly Newton didn’t take as much for granted as I do and I would be willing to bet that his life was richer and more fulfilling because of it.

And such questions don’t stop at gravity. Newton also wondered what light was and how it travelled. In fact once you start thinking about such things there is probably no end to your fascination with the world. On the other hand, for people with dull minds who never question anything then there is no beginning to their interest.

I suspect the kind of people Einstein had in mind when he talked about seeing the world as a miraculous place were scientists, mystics, some religious people, children and anyone who has managed to retain (or to regain) their sense of the strangeness of the world.

I noticed that after Richard Dawkins started talking about the wonder of science in his books Unweaving the Rainbow and The Magic of Reality, and Christopher Hitchens talked of his sense of awe when looking through the Hubble Telescope, the internet was suddenly choc-a-bloc with atheists all apparently spending their time looking through microscopes and telescopes and feeling awed. Each atheist seemed to be in competition with the others in professing the greatest sense of awe at the alleged majesty of the universe. It was like that Monty Python sketch in which four Yorkshire men try to outdo each other with stories of childhood poverty and hardship, each successive story becoming ever more implausible.

Maybe it’s just me but I didn’t believe a word of it. Such professions of wonder just didn’t ring true. I felt these atheists were probably driven more by a dogged determination not to be outdone by their religious opponents, who until then had rather cornered the market in awe. It seemed to me that what they were doing was more akin to signing a mission statement than to expressing a genuine emotion.

Perhaps this is just sour grapes on my part because I am unable to replicate Richard Dawkin’s sense of awe when I look up at the night sky, either with or without the help of a telescope. To me it just looks like sky. Nothing stirs in my heart or warms my veins, though I am convinced that Richard Dawkins is genuine when he says he feels a sense of wonder.

Even so, I believe that with a shift of perspective I could also feel something like that which Dawkins and Hitchens, Einstein and Newton felt. For example, if I were told tomorrow that I was going to die soon, I’m sure I would start to look at the world with renewed interest. Or if I suddenly went blind or deaf. The extra attention I would have to pay to sounds to help me orientate myself, or to visual clues that suddenly become important in the absence of sounds, would make me more alive to certain aspects of my world.

Yet there is already something in the world that fascinates me, though I wouldn’t want to dignify it with the label ‘awe’. It is Japanese girls’ faces. I could look at them for hours, though I try not to. I find their pronounced cheek bones, the flatness at the bridge of their noses, their smooth skin, their animated smiles and their expressive faces all intensely fascinating and beautiful.

It’s probably not coincidental that I also find most of them to be very nice people. I’m not sure which feeling is driving which. Do I find them beautiful because they are nice or is it the other way around? Either way, I’m sure this is a positive feedback loop, with the perception of beauty feeding my liking for them as people, and my enhanced liking for them as people in turn making me find them more beautiful.

Of course, there is nothing unusual in a man finding girls beautiful and I don’t want to offer this as either a mystery or a virtue. In fact it might be something I should keep quite about, especially since I’m a teacher. Either way it is no more remarkable than liking chocolate. Yet for someone like me who finds it impossible to go into raptures about the beauty of the Crab Nebula or the alleged wonder and fascination of a dust mite seen through an electron microscope, or even a painting by Renoir (art and architecture leave me cold), it is a relief to find that I haven’t completely dried up inside and that at least one thing in the world can still make me escape from my self. I think all interests act as a bridge between yourself and the world and are an antidote to self-obsession.

The really important thing for me about this intense interest in Japanese girl’s faces is that it is accompanied by a feeling. My fascination is not just the dry curiosity of an anthropologist looking at members of a strange tribe, nor that of a lecherous pervert (I hope), but something similar to a father looking at his daughter. It feels like something good rather than something shameful.

And it isn’t only Japanese girls’ faces that has this effect on me. Japanese children and small animals also make me gaze, and some songs and music have the ability to give me goose pimples.

All this gives me hope that one day this feeling might spread to other things and I may learn to find the world more beautiful and fascinating than I do now. I might even be able to join the legions of atheists on the internet who claim to feel a sense of gratitude at the spectacle of nature and sense of privilege at being alive in the universe.

But no. I take that last sentence back. I don’t ever want to feel something so cloying and gushing. Just to be more interested in the world and emotionally engaged would be enough. There’s no need for gratitude or exaggeration.

Still, I can already see how Einstein’s belief that the “Joy in looking and comprehending is nature’s most beautiful gift” could one day become my own belief. Until it does I won’t deceive myself into believing I feel something I don’t.


2 thoughts on “A sense of awe”

  1. Wonderfully honest and well said. Having found the wonder of the everyday allow me to encourage you to keep travelling in this life with the expectation that wonder will find you.

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