The next time you are in New York, make sure you go to the Hayden Planetarium. Along with fantastic exhibitions and moon rocks, you can walk on the “Cosmic Pathway” and move through time from the Big Bang to today. It’s a 360-foot ramp where each step takes you forward 10 million years, and all of human history is presented at the end of the pathway — a whopping length of a human hair.
Even if you are not an astrophysicist, you quickly feel humbled by how small we humans are in terms of time and space. Indeed, science — whether it’s through the farthest galaxies or the smallest microbes — can easily generate a sense of awe.
But now, science is working to help us understand the purpose of awe. After all, from an evolutionary perspective, awe seems to make no sense. Yes, we feel goosebumps when we look up at the stars. But so what? How does that help us survive?
Last week, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner addressed that question in a piece in the New York Times asking, “Why Do We Feel Awe?” Keltner in particular is one of the preeminent scientists on the questions of awe, transcendence and compassion through his work at the Greater Good Science Center. And as Piff and Keltner found,
…[A]we helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities…[P]articipants who reported experiencing more awe in their lives, who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around them, were more generous to the stranger…
In other experiments…[p]articipants experiencing awe, more so than those participants experiencing emotions like pride or amusement, cooperated more, shared more resources and sacrificed more for others — all of which are behaviors necessary for our collective life.
Awe, then, can help us create a compassionate community. And if transcendence can help us become better people, then not only science, but religion, can add something to the conversation, as well.
One of the most eloquent writers about awe was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a thinker and activist whose words and deeds still resonate today. And in his masterpiece God in Search of Man, he writes:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal…
Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Awe rather than faith ts the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew. (75, 77, italics in original).
We Jews often struggle with faith and with belief. So maybe we need to move away from questions of belief, and move towards experiences of awe. After all, Judaism is a religion that is much more about what we do and how we act than about what we believe, and science is suggesting that feelings of awe lead us to acts of loving kindness.
And if you need suggestions, try doing what Piff and Keltner recommend:
[W]e suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds.
All of us will be better off for it.
So look up at the heavens. And then use that feeling to make life better here on earth.