Awe Is Our Way Out of Despair

Awe Is Our Way Out of Despair

As a result of our congregation being awarded a national grant from Scientists in Synagogues, I was invited to attend their conference in New York City this past July. At this conference I was able to take part in lectures given by scientists and scholars of Judaism who reflected on the relationship between science and Judaism. Participants were asked to consider the roles that both Judaism and science play in our own lives and the lives of our congregants. We were asked to share a story from our life in which Judaism and science came together. Some spoke about moments with a loved one in hospice, experiencing the limits of medical intervention and in its place, how Judaism was able to step in for comfort, especially at the end stages of a loved one’s life.

Others spoke about their pride in being able to identify as both Jewish and as a scientist without theological or pragmatic contradiction.

And then there were others, who like me, had a more difficult time answering the prompt. I was surprised to be without an answer, given that I’m a rabbi who is married to a scientist! I wondered why I was having a hard time answering. I continued to think about the connection between Judaism and science, and strangely the word I kept returning to was despair.

Despair.

All the way home from the conference I thought about this word. Why despair? Science opens our world to understanding. And also, especially in the past few years, the role of science has become that of a prophesier, asking humanity to face dire news about the world and its future with greater seriousness and urgency. I thought of the growing scientific evidence of a worsening climate crisis; the recent studies of a dramatic decline in our mental health and that of our children; the predictions about another outbreak and how to calculate our own vulnerability. It seems that science, in my life, has taken on the voice of growing doom. Making matters worse are the politicians and religious leaders who have drawn a line in the sand, spouting lies against science to increase division and political vitriol. Yes, the news is bad but it isn’t because of science that the news is so bad. The voice of science is only reporting on our situation, on the reality of the world. And yet, every morning when we open our newspapers or turn on the news, the voice of science can be difficult to digest.

It’s for the same reason the biblical prophets were unpopular. The prophets were not the cause of the destruction of the Temples, but they were the voice of warning to the people. And many probably well-meaning Israelites, just like ourselves, never heeded the call.

Each decade and age in history has brought with it its own particular flavor of existential dread, that is nothing new. However, it is also true that we today feel more despair than perhaps we realize. We are experiencing a social crisis of emotional well-being and shared meaning.

This year, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared that we in North America are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, which is literally killing us. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Studies, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. Let’s not think of this just as a problem of loneliness. In the last twenty years, we, as a society, have experienced a narrowing of consciousness, more than ever before. We have been pulled away from one another, from our communities, from the bigger picture of life and have narrowed ourselves. You’ll recall that the word for Egypt in Hebrew is “mitzrayim” meaning a place of narrowness. We have been drawn toward our own mitzrayim, our own individual worlds, our own narrowness – literally staring into our narrow phone screens, our computers, spending hours on social media instead of connecting with other people. We are different today because never before have we been able to access so much information, never before have we been put on such high alert at all times of the day. We are different today because we can be reached at all times of the day and night and we are expected to answer. We are expected to be looped in at all times about what is happening – happening at work and happening in the world. While social media was marketed as a miraculous way for us to stay in touch with one another, even across the globe, it has in actuality led to our overall closing up inside of ourselves. We know this and yet we feel powerless to stop it. We become further and further siloed into our own echo chambers. Just look at the rise of individualism and the frightening global uptick in right-wing fascism, all evidence that we have lost something fundamental in seeing each other as humans and interconnected.

We have been fundamentally changed also because we have become accustomed to living inside of a toxic and virulent political climate where social media opinions rule over truth and fact, and the loudest, most hateful voices rise to the top of power. As a result many of us are becoming used to white-knuckling our way through the day, living our lives bracing for more terrible news and experiencing so much more despair than perhaps we are willing to admit.

Today’s astounding sense of loneliness is impacted by our crisis of meaning. We’ve lost meaning. How do we make sense of the world when society is drowning in anxiety and despair? How do we orient our lives toward a shared understanding of humanity and its ultimate value? How do we heal divisions? How do we breathe life back into our tired and jaded spirits?

And today, on Rosh Hashanah, the head of the Jewish New Year, I ask us as Jews to consider, if we, as human beings, are in the depths of despair about the state of the world and its future, then how can Judaism contribute to our collective hope? 

Because there is hope. Ultimately, I’ve realized, it comes down to the question of living. How do we move beyond the bombardment of despair, the loneliness and hopelessness that has become a zeitgeist of our modern time, to living a life of spiritual flourishing?

The answer, or at least one powerful remedy, is awe. For so many of us, it is a strong sense of awe that is missing from our lives. And yet, awe is all around us. It is accessible at all times and in all places. It makes us kinder. It gives us perspective.

Awe is how we can begin to heal.

Awe as a concept has always been a part of Judaism. The High Holidays, after all, are called “Yomim Noraim,” Hebrew for “The Days of Awe.” Even knowing this, the true surprise I experienced this summer was learning that the importance of awe, which religious and spiritual practitioners have been writing and teaching about for thousands of years, has also become a more recent subject of scientific study – with measurable results for the betterment of us all. And now, just a few months late, I now have an answer for where science and Judaism come together in my life. In awe.

Research shows that feelings of awe are so powerful because they shift our attention away from ourselves and offer us perspective. In her work, Jane Goodall called this the sense of being “amazed at things outside the self.” Awe can change our lives for the better, give us the meaning we desperately seek, and help us understand the deep connections between human beings as well as all living aspects of earth. Awe can counter the rampant and ugly cynicism of our time. Awe sharpens our awareness of the moral beauty in others by noticing the ordinary kindness, courage, and selflessness of others, and our capacity for overcoming extraordinary challenges.

How does awe accomplish all of that? First, one of my favorite stories. Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud, the first Muslim astronaut, was on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985. Upon returning to Earth, he reflected, “The first day or so [looking down from space at the earth] we all pointed to our own countries. By the third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were only aware of one Earth.” This feeling that the astronauts were experiencing, this is the power of awe. Given the incredible opportunity to float above the Earth, the astronauts were able to see that ultimately, national differences no longer mattered. From the perspective of space, we are all just human beings living on Earth.

Awe is everywhere, and yet it can be hard to define. What is awe? Awe is not just gratitude. Awe is not just a sense of feeling small or afraid. Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world. 1From Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life If our age today is marked by a growing narrowness of consciousness, then awe has the power to expand us intellectually and spiritually. Awe brings us together, out of our echo chambers, into a sense of shared human connection. Awe is the compass of meaning to addressing the spiritual crisis we are in.

Another story. On a clear, frigid day in 1836 while walking outside in Concord, Massachusetts, the great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was suddenly overcome with a sense of awe. He wrote later,

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life- no disgrace, no calamity, which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground […] all mean egotism vanishes. […]  I see all; the currents of the universal being circulate through me; in part or parcel of Gd. […]  I am the lover of the uncontained immortal beauty. 2Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Emerson writes of this moment when he realizes that, standing in the woods on that cold day, he was in the presence of something vast, much greater than his own narrow world of complaints and problems. He became witness to what was present all along, that of our interconnectedness with the outside, natural world and our living breathing connections to one another. In the woods he was in the presence of something vast that transcended his understanding of the world up until that moment.

Although writing in the nineteenth century, Emerson touches on a condition we know too well today, a defining social ill of our times that he calls “mean egotism.” Mean egotism is defined by self-focus, arrogance, a sense of superiority, and entitlement […] as well as aggression, racism, bullying, and everyday incivility. Not to mention hostility toward the self: depression, anxiety, body image problems, self-harm, drug abuse, and eating disorders. 3From Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life Doesn’t this sound familiar? It was for Emerson as well. But in the wake of awe, mean egotism vanishes. If only we allow it.

Not many people can be Ralph Waldo Emerson. Or be an astronaut. But here in all of this bleakness, here is the truly good news, as life-changing as awe can be, it is a primary experience of which we are all capable. Awe is not rare, it does not require wealth or experience. Access to awe is not given only to the religious or spiritually inclined person. You don’t need to be a rabbi or a philosopher. You just have to be alive. Awe is available to everyone all the time. We know this already just from watching children.

Children are great practitioners of awe. Anyone who has spent time with a child outdoors knows this deeply. Moments of awe like the ones children experience everyday are common globally in human life. So then why is awe, something so easy for children, so hard to come by for adults today? Where did we lose it?

It’s because of the way we live our lives that awe is on the decline. Even children who are biologically primed for awe aren’t experiencing it in the ways generationally they used to in the past. It makes sense. Today’s children live lives like our own, lives so overscheduled and reliant on screens that they also aren’t allowed opportunities to discover and experience wonder in their life. In addition, while we have little time to enjoy it, the natural world is undergoing mass extinctions and great global climate crisis. It is no wonder that stress, anxiety, and depression are on the rise for young people as well. We are all awe-deprived.

The writer Katherine May writes intimately about her own journey back to a life filled with awe in her book Enchantment. She writes about how as a child she was filled with an innate sense of wonder:

Enchantment came so easily to me as a child, but I wrongly thought it was small, parochial, a shameful thing to be put away in the rush  towards adulthood. Now  I wonder how  I can find it again.  it turns out that it had nothing to do with beauty after all[…]  when I was young,  it came from a deep engagement with the world around me,  the particular quality of experience that accompanies close attention,  the sense of contact that emerges from noticing.  I worked hard to suppress all those things. I thought it was what I had to do in order to grow up. It took years of work, years of forgetting. I never realized what I was losing. 4Katherine May, Enchantment: Reawakening Wonder in an Anxious Age

Like May, many of us have lost our natural inclination toward awe. But we can get it back.

May tells the story of visiting a local shrine recently constructed near her English hometown. The shrine was a newly developed site, and so for May it lacked the gravity of older shrines and places of worship. Frankly, she writes that it felt gauche, too new and unworthy of being considered a holy place, especially in a country like England with religious and spiritual shrines dating back thousands of years. She writes of her uneasiness visiting this new place, not knowing exactly what she should do or feel. She writes of her visit:

I sit down on the center stone and drink from my bottle of water,  and it occurs to me, in that moment,  that I want to take off my shoes.  I do it all the time on the beach, so why not here, on this soft grass? […]  the ground feels cool, and barefoot, I walk slowly […]  I feel my attention settling for the first time in a long while, in this place that is infinite with detail, with layers and layers of life arrayed before my eyes. It occurs to me that I am resting. It is not the same as doing nothing. Resting like this is something active, chosen, alert, something rare and precious. 5May, ibid.

May finds herself changing in this moment, allowing herself to find a moment of peace and connection.

“[…] there’s a gentleness to this place, a sense of peace. I brought nothing but doubt and cynicism and faithlessness here, but I found something that I didn’t expect. The stones gave out grace in return for my doubt. They had no answers,  and certainly no age-old wisdom that could infuse into me like medicine. As I sit, I find they offer an exchange of gifts, a place where I can bring my troubled self and turn its turmoil into an offering that will pattern the stones, wear them smooth, and start to charge them with the life they have yet to fully attain.” 6May, ibid.

By seeking this shrine and moving through her own doubt and cynicism, May finds meaning. She feels the gift of awe’s transformation.

May allowed herself to be uncomfortable, even a little bored, and without the crutch of a cell phone, a book, another person, or some other distraction, was able to move into a deep awareness of her surroundings. This brings awe. And the gift she receives is a moment of calm and a moment of connection to the earth and to others in the world seeking spiritual connection as well.

It seems too easy, right? That the answer to our time’s debilitating malaise and anxiety is all around us, available to all, free and within reach, if only we were aware enough to see it?

But it’s not a joke. And apparently it’s not very easy either. The world and it’s wonders are here for us all the time and we are too busy, too over programmed, too overworked, too jaded and cynical, to afraid to be bored or to look foolish to others to remember to look out and away from our phones, our screens, and to quiet our own narrow mindset, opinions, and ego and look at what is all around us. Take for example the everyday experience of seeing the stars shine in the sky. When was the last time you went out and really looked at the sky? Emerson once wrote, “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years how would men believe and adore and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night comes out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” 7Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (Article II, Chapter I)We don’t always notice the sublime and awesome within our reach, sometimes preciously because it is always there.

How do we rediscover what we already know, that the world is awesome and full of wonder and that all of humanity shares in it together? We need to stop. We need to be a little bored. We need to practice it everyday. Simple awe-practices that orient our attention away from ourselves and away from our phones and focus us outward: we can look to the sky and the clouds, take a walk outside, read biographies of great people, swim in a natural body of water, listen to moving pieces of music or try contemplating the moral beauty of others – thinking of a teacher, a mentor, or a courageous person in history. Or remembering a moment of kindness directed towards us from a stranger. All of this leads to awe.

Tomorrow, as a part of our second day of Rosh Hashanah, we will explore together some more ways we can rediscover and cultivate awe. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught about the power of awe, which he called “radical amazement.” He wrote, “Wonder is a form of thinking. […] There is no answer in the world to man’s radical amazement.” Together we will encourage each other to wonder, when have I felt radical amazement in my life? Where can I find more? What gets in the way of my pursuing awe every day? I hope you will come ready to be a little bit vulnerable, to be open, and engage in these questions and discussions. We need you.

One more story about awe, this time a personal one. One day in high school, there was going to be a meteor shower in the evening. I had never before seen one, and the conditions were going to be just right – a clear night with no precipitation or clouds. My father and I decided we would wake up in the middle of the night to go outside and witness it. That night, probably close to two a.m., my father woke me up. It was winter, and so I pulled on warm pants and a jacket and met him outside. I remember the night was so clear and the air cold. It had snowed a day or so before and the snow on the ground was frozen hard. I can still hear the sound of it crunching below my feet. We waited for a few moments to have our eyes adjust to the outside light and then suddenly, there they were – one at first, then two, then more flashing across the sky over and over again. Seeing these shooting stars, I could only imagine how small I really was in the vast universe.  Beyond that which I could see daily in the sky, how much was out there? How much did I miss out on or take for granted these miraculous occurrences that filled the world?

I’ve held on to that memory since then; I come back to it often. It gives me a sense of perspective, as well as a sense that there is a vastness out there that transcends any possible understanding of the world. I’m lucky I experienced it with a loved one, my father. You can experience it too.

May 5784 by a year of cultivating awe. A time for orienting outward toward the world, where we will recognize our fundamental interdependence upon one another and all the natural world. May awe help us feel less alone and bring us closer to one another. May awe be a compass of meaning, orienting us to a better life for ourselves and for others.

L’shana tova u’metukah, a sweet and happy new year to you all.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Janine Jankovitz is Rabbi at Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall, PA. This was a sermon given on the morning of Rosh Hashanah 5784 – September 16, 2023).

References

References
1, 3 From Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life
2 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
4 Katherine May, Enchantment: Reawakening Wonder in an Anxious Age
5 May, ibid.
6 May, ibid.
7 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (Article II, Chapter I
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