Thursday, May 02, 2019

What is awesome?

Is anything really awesome anymore? If so, what and why?

Dictionary.com defines awe as "an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful." Awesome is defined as "causing or inducing awe; inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear."

Ammon Shea, author of  Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, notes in this post that awesome originally "referred to feelings of severe fear or dread." It pretty much paralleled the word awful. Both words come from the root awe.

Although the word awesome has evolved to a generally positive connotation, most official definitions still suggest that awe is an overwhelming emotion. But Shea notes that today awesome is often "used as a general purpose exclamation of approval."

When we try to bolster someone's confidence by telling them that they are awesome, we don't usually mean that they are literally astounding or breathtaking. We mean that they're OK. When we use awesome to express mild approval of anything, we leave ourselves with little terminology to apply to true awe.

That doesn't mean that awe does not actually exist. Pretty much everyone has at some point experienced overwhelming feelings of reverential wonder due to an encounter with something truly "grand, sublime, [and/or] extremely powerful." It may have been a natural wonder such as a spectacular waterfall, an eagle snatching its prey, or even a small complex insect. Maybe you listened to a grand musical concert, were present for the launch of a space rocket, or watched a truly astounding athletic performance.

Weber State University professors Luke Fernandez and Susan Matt write in this Standard Examiner op-ed on the topic of the human emotion of awe. After a decade of research, they "find it difficult to say categorically that awe is rising or declining." But they "can say it’s changing shape."

The professors note that while past generations often found awe in connection with nature and Deity, our modern culture is more often awed by its own inventions and technologies. Comedian (and sexual predator) Bill Cosby used to quip that when God created a world and all things on it, he called it "good" (see Genesis 1). But humans create a skyscraper and say, "It's AWESOME!!!!" The extension of this is, "We're AWESOME!!!! I'm AWESOME!!!!"

In "the raw, surging power and ambition of humanity" where we look mostly within our own human constructs and technologies for inspiration, access to the divine characteristic of humility seems to diminish. We become like the brawny bodybuilder admiring his physique in the mirror at the gym, heedless of his own arrogance and limitations.

Fernandez and Matt call for us to look to nature, the god of the modern hippie secularist religion, for inspiration. Most who worship God see nature as God's creation rather than as divinity itself. Indeed, all realms of God's creation, whether they be as large as a universe or microscopic "are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power" (see D&C 88:41-48). Nevertheless, nature can inspire awe and wonder. Those who worship God ought to recognize a fiduciary responsibility to care for God's magnificent work.

But a humble disciple should also be able to see evidence of the divine in the works wrought by humans who they believe are created in God's image, including the technologies, aircraft, buildings, and roadways denigrated by the good professors. I doubt the professors have much real desire for a world that lacks these amenities. Like most who believe in actual Deity, they are likely looking for some kind of balance; although, the definition of balance may differ greatly between viewpoints.

So, what about awe? Fernandez and Matt suggest that "we are suffering from what one clever psychologist dubbed A.D.D. — Awe Deficit Disorder." Maybe. But it seems to me that humans are designed to seek out the awe inspiring. Why is Yellowstone National Park crammed with visitors from around the globe each summer? Why do people tune into the Olympics or attend grand concerts? Why do tourists go to the top of the highest buildings in the world? Why was the world saddened by the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral? Why do people pray or attend church? Why do we marvel at the tiny fingers and toes of a newborn?

Perhaps humans seek out these kinds of experiences because their daily lives are so lacking in awe, unlike the earlier generations favorably painted by the professors as living in simpler times and experiencing wonder more often due to their close contact with nature. Or maybe the awe moderns experience isn't as minimal or as awful as the good professors would have us believe. Maybe the book they are touting amounts to little more than virtue signalling to the like minded.

Then again, perhaps we are so surrounded by factors our predecessors would have considered truly awesome that it becomes too mundane for us to experience its wonder.
We cannot dictate to others how they ought to experience awe. What inspires me may not inspire you and vice versa. A hike along the Teton Crest may bring rapture to one and simply rocks and blisters to another. An interpretive dance may inspire awe in one and revulsion in another. Time kneeling at an altar may seem sacred to one but simply boring to another.

While I am in favor of returning the word awesome to its meaning of inspiring overwhelming awe, I suppose that it will continue to be watered down to mean anything mediocre or better. I am also in favor of individuals regularly experiencing true awe in ways that are meaningful to them. I suppose that some of what people find inspiring will mystify me. But that's their business, not mine.

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