Stuff

The Death of Awe in the Age of Awesome

Have we lost our sense of wonder?

by Henry Wismayer
Apr 21 2015, 10:50pm

The Northern Lights, which are generally agreed to be an awesome thing. Photo by Flickr user Image Editor

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It was a seemingly innocuous YouTube clip that got me thinking. A fellow parent of a toddler showed it to me, with the accompanying explanation that it had become a highly effective way of quietening her daughter, like a sort of video tranquilizer.

"Look," she said, and, presenting her phone to our pair of two-year-olds, invited me to watch as their expressions began to glaze over. On the screen, a dozen or so Kinder-egg-style treats were arrayed in two neat lines. Then a woman's manicured hands—belonging to "a Brazilian ex-porn star," my friend informed me, absently—reached in and began to open egg after egg after egg.

And there, in the mesmerized, near-drugged toddler faces, was a glimpse of something that's been niggling me for a while. I'm talking—somewhat pretentiously, I'll admit—about the death of awe.

Travel writers like me spend a lot of time contemplating why people venture abroad. Not just the obvious enticements—relaxation, winter sun, cheap pilsner—but the emotional, soul-stirring stuff: the sustenance of the new. The awe. It has, I think, become one of the main incentives of our traveling lives. As spirituality wanes, experience is the new faith, and we are refugees from the mundane.

But behind this quest for the big, beautiful, and baffling is a disconcerting sense that wonder in the age of the bucket list is under attack. From technology, from information overload, from the anti-spiritual cynicism of the post-hippy world. In an era where a child only has to hold a five-inch screen in front of their face to gorge themselves on the apparent miracle of a one-inch Dora the Explorer hatching from a two-tone chocolate shell, awe has started to feel increasingly elusive.

It doesn't take a philosopher to understand that this diminution of the human condition is an inevitable price of social progress. Awe, after all, used to be much easier to come by. Imagine you're a Stone Age hunter witnessing a solar eclipse (not like last month's anticlimactic, cloud-snuffed eclipse; a proper one). Suddenly, the sun is extinguished. You don't know it's a temporary phenomenon, an orbital idiosyncrasy. So you tremble, piss your mammoth-skin pants, invent gods! That's proper awe right there.

Travel, for many of us, has become a means of trying to resuscitate that sense of humbling incomprehension. Awesome places, whether natural or man-made—the sort that are endlessly catalogued in a thousand "things to do before you die" books—have become lodestars for the restless mind, places to light out for. But it's harder to feel awe when your eclipse is preceded by a 24-hour news preamble sucking every last grain of mystery out of the process.

The result is a uniquely modern malaise in which awe has become fugitive: desperately sought yet ever harder to wrest from the claustrophobic clamor of our overcrowded little planet. Our culture is all grown-up. And like the adult who realizes that the illusionist is a con man, not a conjurer, we're becoming dulled by over-discovery and over-supply.

Real-life awe barely cuts it any more. We have Photoshop and CGI outdoing the actual. When the Lumiere brothers premiered their 50-second movie in a Parisian theatre—of a flickering locomotive chugging towards the camera—people fled the auditorium. Now we watch The Hobbit, where armies of orcs, trolls, and warmongering dwarves appear utterly, compellingly alive, and shuffle out of the multiplex feeling lobotomized.

The city-dweller's connection with nature—the most prolific wellspring of earthly wonder—is diminished, near-severed. Romanticizing landscape is barely allowed. Wordsworth would never get away with that lonely cloud shit now. People would just call him a narcissistic hipster wanker. Familiarity breeds contempt. And cynicism withers all. When was the last time you witnessed something special without seeing a photo of it first?

Perhaps the greatest problem, though, lies in the paradox that genuine wonder becomes more slippery the more you pursue it. You can have a bucket-list as long as your arm, but any inveterate awe-chaser will tell you that the planned event, loaded with its adherent expectations, is too open to disappointment.

Say your great traveling aspiration is to witness the Northern Lights (and if you subscribe to bucket-lists, there's an 80 percent chance it is). You've made it to the Arctic Circle, journeyed out to some gloaming Nordic fastness. And there! The ethereal vision of electric green ripples oscillating across space—curling, coalescing, painting great glyphs in the sky. Your imagination unfurls: One moment you see a charging horse, the next a crashing wave. What could it mean, this incandescent tumult, these billion motes of cosmic dust carried on the solar wind? You reach for your camera, then pause. No. You just want to breathe this in (there are good photos available on Google Images). Hair on end, eyes agog, soul vaulting, you shiver. But wait—what's this? The couple from your group tour have marched into your field of view. Backs turned to the light, they hold the phone aloft. Pout, snap; pout, snap. "This is so awesome," the man breathes, returning to your side. And your reverie is gone.

What's the answer? For some, it lies in pushing further. As awe diminishes, peril has become coveted. In the pre-industrial world, few people felt drawn to mountains. They were foreboding places you ventured into only out of necessity. Now, people fling themselves from their summits wearing wing-suits. Craving adventure, adrenaline junkies know that moments are lived more fully when stood on the precipice.

Recommended: 'Nest of Giants,' our doc in which superhuman men do awesome things:

I have a friend who's spent the last five years cycling around the world. His sublime dispatches from the road, which I read with equal doses of envy and joy, speak of a journey rife with awe—of danger, chance encounters, and vast tracts of unknown land.

Though he spends much of his time in discomfort—cold, knackered, and apocalyptically alone—people constantly tell him: "You're living the dream." For he has left tire tracks across more unusual places on his 40,000-mile bike-ride than most of us will see in a lifetime.

Yet, when I wrote to him to ask his views on awe, his reply, tapped out in an internet café somewhere in west Mongolia, confirmed what many of us probably already know: "Real awe is still attainable, still delights, and still keeps me pedaling," he wrote. "But it never comes from the stuff the Lonely Planet informs me I should be awestruck by. It's the stuff that arrives unannounced."

So perhaps Yeats had it right when he wrote: "The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper." Most of us will never witness a crystalline dawn from the summit of Everest, a 40-foot swell on the Southern Ocean, or a pride of lions without a dozen other safari vehicles bundling into our peripheral vision.

But, in a humbler way, the feelings such experiences would elicit are still attainable, just as soon as we admit that true awe is probably more easily encountered by accident, spontaneously, often in something simple you'd never stopped to contemplate before.

It may be closer than you think.

The other day, in the park, I came across a wren sitting on a conifer-branch. For ten minutes it stood on its twig, chest puffed-out but still barely bigger than my thumb. And as it sang its high-pitched warble, it occurred to me that this little creature, half a mile from home, was just about the most awesome thing I've ever seen.

So let's keep looking, but not too hard. Only then might we hope to recapture that simple childhood wonder, of a toy inside a plastic capsule, enclosed in a chocolate egg.

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