“An Awesome Time of Year”
The December Holidays are honed to evoke wonder and awe of the child in us. When I think of my childhood and the words, “wonder and awe,” I think of trains. Most of my childhood, I lived close enough to railroad tracks to hear the blasts of train horns as they approached the section of tracks near our family home and hear our windows rattle as they whizzed past.
Newark, Delaware, my hometown, had two major rail lines running through the middle of it: the B & O Railroad and the Penn Central. The B & O freight trains rumbled by one block from our first home in Newark when I was a preschooler. The Penn Central, the major Amtrak rail corridor from New York to Washington D.C., ran less than a quarter mile from our second home where I lived from the age of six to twenty.
At the tender age of six years old, I remember sneaking back to walk beside the tracks hoping the light of an oncoming train would appear in the distance. One direction I would look down the tracks until they merged into a dot on the blue hazy horizon. The other direction the tracks curved into green overgrowth. As I looked around that bend, a light would silently appear. Seeing the circulating light get closer, hearing the singing of the rails, feeling the vibration in the ground, plugging my ears against the penetrating sting of the horn, stepping back overwhelmed by the size and the power of the engine, feeling the blast of air as the train screamed past, all these experiences left me with a tremendous sense of wonder and awe of these iron horses.
During my teen-age years, I would walk to the old abandoned train station near my house, sit and watch for the trains to come and wonder about my life, my future and what it all means. That station became a religious shrine for me when I was lonely or troubled. And when it came time for me to leave home and set off to seek my way in the world, I left on one of those trains that past by that station on to a larger world than I had known.
I have regularly encountered experiences of wonder and awe throughout my life. What distinguishes the experience of wonder is an element of surprise or astonishment. Wonder has a dimension of rapt or questioning attention toward the extraordinary or mysterious. Not knowing when the next train would appear out of the hazy horizon or around the bend added an element of surprise to the train’s approach. The immensity and speed of the train made it both extraordinary and mysterious at the same time.
Awe is slightly different than wonder. Awe unlike wonder contains a component of fear and reverence, a reverent wonder with a touch of fear inspired by the grand and the sublime. For me the awesome dimension of the trains was their danger. My mother constantly warned me to stay away from the tracks and never to cross them. As a train passed by, part of me was frightened by it and its power to destroy. Yet that power also inspired a curiosity, an interest and an attraction.
Wonder and awe are the daily experiences of young children encountering the world for the first time. Everything is fresh and fascinating. Watching a child blow their first bubble, chase their first rabbit, meet nose to nose with their first cow, master a computer game console, fly their first kite, and swim their first strokes, all these childhood passages can be awe inspiring and wonder-full. Keeping in regular contact with wonder and awe are tremendously helpful in the child’s development into adulthood.
Sadly, as we get older, less and less is new and surprising. We have all seen so much in our lifetimes. It is the curse of a good education, broad experience and a sharp, perceptive mind that by middle age, you know a great deal and by old age, you have seen it all. Sure, there is more for us to know than we can ever take in, but the experience of surprise comes less and less. One becomes more inclined to see a sunset, rank it against all the others seen over the years. “Oh,” as a friend commented to me on Summer day at the beach watching the sun dip over the horizon illuminating a delicate lattice of cloud wisps with a light pink, “I’d rate that one no more than a 3 out of 10.”
It is almost as if we defend ourselves against the wonder and awe opportunities in daily living. The experience of surprise that comes with wonder can also be a little disturbing since our expectations about reality might be challenged. In a moment of wonder we are confronted with something that is new or perhaps out of our mind’s control. One troubling aspect of awe is the experience of fear. An awesome experience can diminish our sense of ourselves. That enormous train rushing by carrying important people going important places to do important things made the younger me feel small, like a bystander to life. Beholding the stars in the sky at night, has made me feel tiny and insignificant.
Maybe we need holidays in gloomy times like December to counter the forces that constrict us and narrow our experience of wonder and awe. The colored lights, the sound of familiar music, the special cookies and treats, the first citrus of the season from Florida, come together to soften us up a little bit, and make us more ready to engage the senses anew, ready to broaden and deepen our experience of being alive.
So as we enter this holiday season, may we welcome wonder and awe into our lives and find the sustaining joy which is their origin. These experiences are not a long way off. They shine every day out of the eyes of children.