From the Editor at Large: The Pursuit of Awe

Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,

Sometimes life surprises you with a chance to view yourself through another’s eyes. I had that moment recently. A kind email from a thoughtful reader gifted me with a deeper understanding of the theme underlying these epistles I write you. I am better for it. 

As are we all, I am a work in progress. Examining my life to this point puts me in mind of a home built in fits and starts by jackleg carpenters working without a blueprint. Some of it is purpose built for function. Some of it is designed purely with aesthetics in mind, all practicalities be damned. Some closed doors hide the need for renovation. Fortunately, the foundation of the whole thing is tied into the bedrock of a marriage to the woman I was meant to find. That gives me time to think about what work most needs doing. 

I walked out of my office at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina two years ago this month. When I took off my well-worn combat boots that afternoon it felt as if I were shedding a skin. I had no idea what I meant to do next, other than thinking “not that” in response to most options. By luck, coincidence, and in no small part this monthly opportunity to write you, I came to the life of the writer. In that, I’ve discovered something of which I had hints in the preceding three decades: it is possible to spend a life in the pursuit of awe. In fact, it’s advisable. 

Dr. Dacher Keltner spends his own life in awe by studying it. He identified eight common aspects of life that generate awe in humans, but for adherents to a life afield his “Neurophysiology of Wild Awe” may be of most interest. The bottom line is our vagus nerve responds to sources of awe in ways that calm us. Awe is broadly open to personal interpretation; its source need not be grand. Listening to Keltner on a podcast, I thought of the simultaneous pulse quickening and euphoric calm I feel in spring as that morning thunder comes in reply to the sound of a striker on slate. I thought back twenty-five years, to floating motionless, ten feet below the surface of the Pacific and one fin kick away from a humpback whale. 

I’m still pondering a recent trip to one of Georgia’s remote barrier islands, aimlessly following a sandy road twisting under a canopy of moss bearded live oaks. From the cab of a dodgy pickup, I contemplated a succession of freshly killed Ibises until I came around a curve to see the tawny hindquarters of a Florida panther slipping into palmetto. As many people will dispute the claim as endorse it. I am still convincing myself I saw a panther rather than the world’s biggest bobcat. But my vagus nerve knows what I saw, and a lasting reverence for the moment testifies to the truth. 

We live in a time easily given to cynicism, sarcasm, and base meanness. Malice masquerading as commerce renders our shared humanity as just another pile of filthy lucre. We swear fealty to people we don’t actually know, in whose homes we would never allow our children to play. It need not be that way. 

It’s possible to be awed by things unaligned to any agenda. Big direction changes are hard, but it’s easy to hold a door or help someone load their groceries. Changing someone’s tire is cheaper than a trip to the movies. Saying yes to a new friend’s offer of a walk under pines, behind dogs coursing through wiregrass, pays dividends for days. An old sour cream tub’s worth of red wigglers and something cold sweating through a paper sack paired with throwing lines with a child can help them to grow into their own awe. That matters. Because somewhere on an island off the Georgia coast, there’s a big cat waiting to be seen.  


Russell Worth Parker

Editor at Large, Tom Beckbe