The Contradiction of Awe

Humans are so contradictory. Yesterday, I looked out the window of the building I work in, one of the tallest buildings in the Philadelphia skyline, and I felt a tremendous sense of…well…astonishment. Nothing mattered in that instant. As I lay my eyes upon the expanses of the region, in one glance, I could see where thousands of people lived.

Philli Skyline

Not exactly my view of the Philadelphia Skyline, but nonetheless, isn’t the untold thousands of people this picture contains just… amazing?

I wondered how they lived. What concerned them at this instant? Could they ‘feel’ me looking in their direction? Or would they just go about their day, along with the quotidian stresses that characterize our lives? I knew the answer to this, of course.  There was no reason for anyone to be remotely affected by me looking out through a small office building window. But yet, every time I do, I am changed.

The feeling that grasps me is the same one I’ve felt before when reading a particularly captivating book, or a long chat with a friend, or even after surviving a car crash—a stirring feeling that no one understands but the person involved. How am I supposed to continue living after this? Am I supposed to pretend that sac of amniotic ignorance that society traps us in, has not just been breached? I understand… things!

I am left mouth agape, and I wonder if anyone was truly ever lived this life that is entrusted to us, out of the infinitesimally small number of people that actually get the chance to exist.  As I look up from the pages of my book, or from my desk overlooking the skyline, am I not supposed to be awed? When I can go to sleep on a plane in New York and wake up 5 hours later in my native city tucked amongst the verdant hills of Antioquia, Colombia—am I not to feel wonder? That beautiful landscape of color that brightens the evening has an intense hold upon my being and in that moment, like in other moments of daily life, I am found.


This awe, this all-encompassing feeling of belonging and contradictory alienation is something that I yearn for others to experience—a sentiment shared by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the new host of Cosmos. He understands the beauty of our natural world and the role that we play in it, in our own microscopic way vis-à-vis the ever-indifferent universe. He shares with us all, the same wonders instilled into him by Carl Sagan and the stars. In their benign indifference to our comparatively petty human concerns, it is possible to escape and see ourselves as part of a larger project—a universal aberration.

All past human civilizations have looked to the sky for guidance and we disdain it, we underappreciate it, we try to live as if it did not matter. As if we did not evolve together with this world, as if in the loneliness of the ever-expanding universe, we were (perhaps) alone and yet not. To really understand our place in the world, beyond our day-to-day, it’s imperative that we look beyond it and look to the ever-expanding darkness (maybe à la Nietzsche). Even now, Science has begun to look into the effects of awe on our well-being and how it can inform our lives, such as we lead them.

Don’t take my word for it, go out there and see for yourself.  Or just watch a few episodes of Cosmos. Take your pick.

Harold Alexander Mesa (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Harold Alexander MesaHarold Mesa is a Rutgers University alumnus who received his B.A. in 2013 in History. He was born in Medellín, Colombia and lived the second half of his childhood in New Jersey. His interests include post-colonialism, linguistics, Marxian political thought, feminism, and Buddhism—amongst other things.  He enjoys playing and discussing soccer.

3 responses to “The Contradiction of Awe

  1. Pingback: Humanism, Morality & Forgiveness: Rutgers’ World Parliament of Religions Event | Applied Sentience·

  2. Pingback: Why I Went Back to Sunday Assembly: Thoughts on a Growing ‘Atheist Church’ | Applied Sentience·

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