Waiting for awesome

Can you find a moment in your day to contemplate something awesome?

The universe often gives us moments to pause and reflect on who we are and what we are doing at any particular time.

Yesterday I had one of those moments while driving home through one of the ritzy parts of Toronto.  Sometimes I use the time to check out the beautiful homes and landscapes as a way to unwind.  But yesterday I was a bit late, and in a hurry.  As I approached a stop sign at one of the neighborhood’s 4-way intersections, I began to slow down, and eventually stopped.  And stayed stopped.  No one was moving.  I began to get irritated at the white van that seemed to be parked half-way through the intersection, blocking all access.

I was about to beep my horn to indicate my growing impatience, but was caught by surprise.  From the way my car was positioned, I could see the reason for the van’s curious mid-intersection pause.  A black bushy-tailed squirrel, with a huge chestnut clenched firmly in its mouth, sauntered ever so slowly across the street in front of the van, as if he knew he had the right of way and that the van driver would not run him over.  That squirrel sure took his time. Suddenly, I saw the humor, and I laughed out loud at how all of us waiting at that intersection were held hostage by a squirrel’s seeming confidence, obliviousness or indifference.

It was one of those moments that carried more psychic weight than just being an amusing story.  The image of that squirrel slowly trotting across the street reminds me of a few lines from poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (from his 1958 book, Coney Island of the Mind).  One is simply called “Dog,” and begins “The dog trots freely in the street, and sees reality…” The poem describes how the dog’s perspective on reality changes as he moves, unlike our obliviousness and our not seeing what is really going on in our world, within our personal lives and on a more global level.

We can get so caught up in the daily flotsam and jetsam of our comings and goings and in our attempts to get our wants and needs met, that we often fail to notice not only the externals (i.e., we don’t smell the roses or notice the squirrels), but also the internals (i.e., we don’t pay attention to what we are sensing or feeling physically or emotionally, or what, exactly, we are thinking).

The other poem, “I am waiting,” begins with and intermittently repeats the line “And I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder… ”  As Ferlinghetti implies, we pay a price for our oblivion and tuned-out consciousness, which author and teacher Carolyn Myss would call a need for “awe.”

Our need to feel a sense of wonder at the universe is sometimes publicly inspired by major scientific breakthroughs, such as Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, the mapping of the human genome project, or perhaps by natural or even man-made catastrophes, such as Hurricane Katrina, the Japanese tsunami or more recently, Hurricane Sandy.  More often than not, though, we become awe-inspired by more personal events, such as the birth of a child, falling in love, a hard-won achievement or even a small lottery windfall.

But how many of us experience awe on a more frequent basis?

According to Myss, today’s young people, especially those who join gangs and who turn to violence or become high-risk takers, are desperate for a sense of awe and wonder.  (Curiously, it is young people who coined the word ‘awesome’ to describe circumstances that are, in fact, comprised of more mundane elements).

In the past, this very human need to experience wonder may have been met on a regular basis by attendance at churches or places of worship, which were built to be awe-inspiring, and whose ritual pomp and ceremonies were created to be special, to set moments apart from the daily grind.  Religious participation, which once filled this need to be awed, has been on the decline since the 60’s (apart from the ever-growing born-again and fundamentalist movements spanning numerous faiths).

However, now we know that awe can be experienced anytime, anywhere, just by paying attention.  That squirrel inadvertently showed me how laughter and surprise can shift a surly mood, how the kindness of strangers (i.e., van drivers) is ever-present, how pausing to notice needn’t take long or be a big deal, and how being alive in the moment is what living is all about.

That squirrel was indeed awesome!