"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Make Time For Some Awe

Just when you thought the era of cockamamie feel-good theories was over, and that you had heard the most senseless and inane of them, along comes Awe.  What we need are injections of truly awe-inspiring events, sights, and sounds – all of which will transport us from our daily, mundane lives, show us the potential of life and humanity, and illuminate the greatness within ourselves. As Cayte Bosler writes in The Atlantic (12.19.13):

It can be hard to generalize what people consider jaw-dropping, but Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota says research demonstrates what consistently creates an awesome experience. Travel ranks high. So does gazing at the cosmos on a clear night or watching a sensational film, as well as anytime we encounter massive quantities: colorful tulips in bloom, a bustling market in India, or a stunning school of fish.

I have a young friend named Janine who waits tables at Mill’s BBQ in Pickens, Alabama.  She lives with her parents, has two children, one incarcerated and the other in drug rehab.  She works for cash below the minimum wage, has no health or disability insurance, and subs for a friend Saturday nights at Walmart.  The only awe in her life is a big tip.

Then there is Willie Adams, a crippled ex-truck driver who hit a patch of black ice on the Interstate in Indiana while hauling chicken parts to Fresno. The big rig snapped around like a whip, flipped, and jackknifed in a ditch, sending wings, thighs, and breasts into the woods, and crushing poor Willie’s legs. After five years of patient, insistent, but unsuccessful attempts to get his disability payments raised, advanced rehabilitation in Memphis, and money to retrofit his trailer to accommodate his walker and wheelchair, he is back where he started – broke, lame, and jobless.

There was never any awe in Willie’s life. He grew up in red dirt Alabama, raised by his grandmother with six siblings. He made it to eighth grade, watched over his younger brothers and sisters while his grandmother was out picking cotton, learned how to drive at fifteen by doing errands for Pop Barkley in a ‘48 rusted-out pickup, and started long-hauling before he was twenty.  Nothing was unionized in rural Alabama when he started out, so he worked odd lots, short-range runs of timber and fertilizer, and only when he had put in 15 years did a registered trucking outfit pick him up.  Not long after he started driving for them did he hit the black ice.

Great swaths of the South are dirt poor.  People work two shit jobs, get fat, shop with coupons, watch TV, take the kids to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal once a month, live in double-wides, and still need food stamps to get by. They leave home in the dark, come back in time for the 11 o’clock news, and are knackered, dispirited, and just plain worn out.  Any break in the depressing routine would be welcome.  Once the pipes burst at the sheet metal plant in Selma, and everyone had two days off. The Pope’s motorcade passed through Oktibbeha County back in ‘84 and workers got the morning to watch. Awe for the cotton pickers, mill workers, Walmart greeters, chicken haulers, and hash-slingers is a day off.

The only glimpse of a bustling market in India anybody in the hollers of West Virginia has ever had was in People Magazine - shots of Brad and Angelina in the slums of Calcutta.  The only colorful tulips in bloom hairdressers have seen are those planted by Lady Bird Johnson near the Washington Mall, covered every May by WWVA-TV; and the only gazing at the cosmos happens when Bobby Jenkins’ truck breaks down on Rt. 203 at midnight coming home from his cousins’.

Jason Silva has produced a multi-part series for YouTube called Shots of Awe, and he thinks he is on to something:

In his "Shots of Awe" YouTube series, Silva wants to interrupt your mundane existence with "philosophical espresso shots" designed to inspire you to live to the fullest.

It’s easy to get swept away by Silva’s vision of the future: a revolutionary convergence of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. He considers awe to be a pivotal ingredient in making ideas resonate. In his three-minute clips, he hardly takes a breath as he spouts rousing optimism over digitally animated film.

Most Americans don’t lead such penurious lives and have the opportunity to travel.  Far from awe-inspiring, however, trips are usually city-hopping tours – Pisa one day, Paris the next.  Every Spring Washington is jammed to the gills with visitors from every state in the Union, and millions can see Lady Bird’s tulips, the Air and Space Museum, and the White House.

Nine-out-of-ten times these visitors, however, return back to French Lick, Eutaw, or Abilene just as knackered, beaten, and dispirited as their red dirt relatives in Alabama. Touring is a difficult, tiring, and frustrating affair.  The wife has been hectoring on for hours about the shitty little hotel room near the elevators and ice machine.  The kids settle in to their whine after being dragged to the lame museums on the Mall.  Granny’s bunions start to hurt on the first morning.

Maybe I have this all wrong, and that some real awe would shock the pipe-fitters and coal miners into some ethereal realm never before imagined. A world so magical and transforming that their lives would never be the same.  I just have trouble imagining what that might be given most people’s budget, time off, and upbringing. And even if there were really such as thing as awe, it is quickly forgotten once you are back on the factory floor.

Those tulips, the bustling Indian market, the great celestial vault of stars on the Serengeti, all are photographed, filed, and forgotten.  There is a new theory of memory which says that not only do you remember best what happened last, but that last memories color all that has come before.  If you have had a great time in Paris for five days, but on your last day it pours, the waiter is surly and dismissive, and Granny breaks her ankle, that’s all you will remember about Gay Paree.

Awe is good for many things, Bosler reports in her article:

When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence, we think people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned." Rudd, of Stanford, is currently working on a follow-up study to understand just how awe-inspired moments might open a person up to learning new information.

Not only do most people not want to be put off balance – our lives are have been carefully constructed to reduce risk and financial loss; and to increase security, longevity, and family well-being – when awe happens it is usually bad enough to knock us off our pins.  A really bad tornado in the Midwest. Katrina. Newtown. 9/11.

Every single one of us would like our routines to change. Even those that seem the most satisfying – winters on St. Bart’s and skiing at Gstaad; summers on the Vineyard or at a little place in Sonoma. Dinners at Lutece with the illuminati, followed by a quick trip to the Coast for a meeting with Geffen and Spielberg – get old.  A routine is a routine, no matter how glitzy and tricked out it is.

There is religion, of course, and I have heard Southern Baptist preachers talk about the Rapture in Our Time – that exhilarating union with Jesus Christ – after which life will never be the same.  New Age preachers are no different – rapture is possible if one merges one’s soul with The Eternal, The Endless, The Glorifying One:

Even that never works for long.  I have heard people say that they have seen The Light, and their lives have been changed; but all I can see is that they are still working the lathe, shopping at Dollar Stores, flipping burgers, and yelling at their kids.

To be sure, there are Hindu ascetics who live in caves high up in the Himalayas; but they have worked at their spiritual enlightenment for their whole lives, passing through the penultimate Householder phase (hectoring wives, bratty children) and building good karma before they can turn their full attention to their soul.  And when they do, their spiritual place is one without awe, spectacle, or excitement.  It is one of profound nothingness and peace.

"We are simultaneously worms and gods," Silva says, an idea that drives him to produce more creatively. "Man is literally split in two: He has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness, in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground ... to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever."

Silva is no different from Baptist Bible-thumpers preaching rapture or New Age preachers urging spiritual renewal and ecstasy.  Nor Sixties hippies dropping acid.  He is only the most recent of a long line of spiritual hucksters who see ‘splendid uniqueness’ when most bus drivers, waitresses, clerks, and janitors agree with Hobbes – “that the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

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