It was 11:23pm – way past my usual bedtime – but I couldn’t sleep. There was something about the energy in the air; something exhilarating and magical that made my senses go haywire. I decided to throw on my bathrobe and bear paw slippers and step outside. A bright full moon illuminated the midnight sky, casting a milky hue on the surrounding trees. For a moment, everything seemed to stand still: it was as if the chipmunks, the squirrels, the birds – all of the wildlife that usually inhabited my backyard – was frozen in time. Here we were, just me and the moon. This beautiful, wondrous, incredible moon. As I stood there soaking up its energy, I observed it a little more closely. I could see the many whites, yellows, and greys that gave shape to the moon’s craters and valleys.
I reflected on the crazy journey that is life, that brought me to this present moment. How ironic that, in the midst of this global pandemic, when people were dying and losing their jobs, their incomes, their livelihoods, their families and their friends, here I was, standing in my backyard, completely at peace, experiencing a moment of complete serenity. A moment of awe and wonder. When was the last time I allowed myself to feel that way? To just be?
Children have a natural way of experiencing the world with curiosity and magic. To them, the reflection of glass particles on a paved road is a trail of diamonds and fairy dust; and the brilliant stars that fill the evening sky are the souls of our ancestors, guardian angels who are lighting our path and watching over us from afar. Unkempt gardens with fallen trees and weeds are mystical jungles filled with wildflowers and trolls. And the lizards jumping along the fence are baby dragons that have just hatched from their eggs and are learning how to fly.
I remember when I first discovered the origin of my name: Gwendolyn. A celtic name composed of gwen (white) and dolen (ring). The name of the Viking moon goddess, inspired by – you’ve guessed it – the white ring that emanates from the full moon’s glow. I was 10 years old when I made that discovery and it changed everything. It’s as if all of the taunting, the teasing, and the bullying I had endured for years as a child – for being bi-cultural, for being different – all of a sudden didn’t matter anymore. I had discovered my reason for being, my purpose, my shared bond with the big, vast universe. I was directly connected to the source of all creation, and that meant I mattered. I was reborn.
It’s funny how it takes a full moon to remember the magic and awe that surrounds us in our daily lives. Why is it that, when we get older, we forget? It seems we are taught that the only way to “be” is to “do”: do more, do better, do greater. We are socialized into believing that success requires great sacrifice, and that the only way to demonstrate value is to keep busy and fill each breathing moment with ‘to do’ lists, meetings, and other obligations. We’ve become slaves to self-imposed schedules and artificially constructed concepts of time: days, hours, minutes, seconds we wish we had more of and, yet, with each moment, they run away.
When was the last time we experienced awe and wonder, the kind of marvel and astonishment inspired by great beauty, sublimity and might? Those moments that are so exhilarating, we get goosebumps on our arms, butterflies in our stomach, tingling up and down our spine, tears in our eyes … It doesn’t happen very often, but we’ve all been there at one point in our lives: when you experience the birth of your first child, when you witness love and joy in its purest form; when you see the beauty and vastness of the mountains and the ocean; when you look into another person’s eyes and you feel your spirits connect; when all concept of space and time fades away and you allow yourself to just be; when you feel the magic, mystery, and reverence of the universe; when you truly grasp the incredible privilege of being alive. It doesn’t matter what your background or your story is. Awe is universal. We all want to be moved.
Research shows that awe and wonder provide immeasurable benefits when it comes to health and happiness, our perception of ourselves, and our interaction with the world around us. In the context of my work at CultureLynx, awe and wonder also have broad implications for the field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion:
#1. Awe connects us with our humanity: By enabling us to perceive beauty and vastness, awe shifts our focus from the self to our connection with the world. It ignites what in South Africa is referred to as “ubuntu,” (one of our seven values at CultureLynx), the shared bond of humanity that connects us as people and that eliminates the dangerous barriers created by “us versus them” thinking.
#2. Awe ignites curiosity – that thirst for knowledge, the desire to learn more. Once we’ve tasted the magic and the freedom that arises from awe-inspiring moments, our brains are triggered to seek more, to dive deeper in our quest for purpose and understanding. By stimulating curiosity, awe launches perhaps the greatest weapon against bias and discrimination: the simple desire to be open for growth, knowledge and understanding.
#3. Awe expands creativity (another CultureLynx value) – that blue-sky, out-of-the-box thinking, those aha moments that enable you to connect the dots in unique ways to generate new solutions. Perceiving the world as your oyster, when you are the perl looking up, enables you to expand your line of sight, so you can see infinite solutions and possibilities. And when creativity is amplified, it has a positive impact on productivity, boosting the type of innovation that makes the world go around.
#4. Awe connects us with our inner Truth – the very thing all human beings crave: an alignment with our deeper purpose in life. It does so by changing perceptions of time, by slowing things down and enabling us to be truly present, in the moment, connecting with our higher consciousness. It is in those moments when we feel bound to something larger than ourselves that we rekindle the fire we need to look beyond the stories we’ve told ourselves and discover who we really are.
#5. Awe promotes gratitude. In those times when we are overcome by raw emotion, when we want to jump for joy and scream out of exhilaration, when we want to let those butterflies carry us away – in those times when we finally see the big picture, we are filled with a sense of hope that generates a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for all of the blessings we have in life. And, finally:
#6. Awe improves our health, our happiness, and our wellbeing. Research has shown that awe reduces inflammatory proteins called cytokines, the very kind that ignite our fight-or-flight response in the face of imminent danger, and the very kind that contribute to so many autoimmune illnesses due to prolonged stress in our modern world. By helping us relax, awe boosts our immune system, and reduces anxiety and depression, thereby directly contributing to greater longevity and quality of life.
When was the last time we looked at the world with childlike curiosity and experienced that magic and wonder in the world? For as long as I can remember, we have been immersed in a culture that prioritizes the self, celebrates differences (rather than what makes us unique), and encourages productivity to the point where we are over-worked, over-stressed, and burnt out to the max.
Yet, with the world economy grinding to a screeching halt and forcing us to slow down, we have a unique opportunity to reconnect with a part of ourselves that we had long forgotten. Maybe now, in the midst of all of this chaos, undertainy, and despair, is the time to re-inspire that awe and wonder in the world. Maybe now is the time to appreciate the vastness and the beauty that surrounds us, so we can connect with humanity, ignite our curiosity, expand our creativity, connect with our inner Truth, express gratitude, and focus on our health and well-being. Maybe now is the time for The Great Awe-wakening.