The Power of Awe
(On this day--Mental Health Day-- honoring those who have struggled with a mental illness, I would like to offer my voice, a little of my story and a brighter side. This is a story of depression, of longing for wondrous things, for the brighter side and for connection.)
It has been a roller coaster ride since settling in this small town with my daughter. It is ironically the area I grew up in, and ultimately escaped from, crippled from its constraints and limitations, I left as soon as I could. It is a town riddled in convention, tradition, and competition, all of which are the opposite of my values. Soon, I felt diluted and bored.
In the beginning, moving here brought high hopes of community involvement, support, and the ease of knowing that when life knocked the wind out of you, someone had your back. It was a small town after all; stereotypes have a purpose. I tried to make ties with people, but I feel so odd and otherworldly. Part of that is inherent; I have prided myself in being a lone wolf. Returning to a pack though has been a challenge. My stories were unheard as they blow around tables of unappetizing food and relentless questions of my lack of coupling and suspicious identity. Not that I blame them. Different and sometimes dark is unnerving to be around. I secluded further.
Slowly, depression crept in after years of quietness, slicing open pieces of me to be extracted and idealized. I started to isolate, sometimes going weeks without adult contact. Happier moments would creep in, usually after an old connection was made or friends from out of town would visit. It is like I came up for air and finally took a deep breath. Then the darkness and solitude would ascend and I would sink under the surface once again.
Sometimes I wonder if I am addicted to the darkness, like it feeds an insatiable desire for nothingness. If nothing is pursued or given passionate attention to there is never disappointment. I stopped noticing life around me.
What is depression really? Is it like an addiction?
Author, Alice Miller writes, “What is addiction really? It is a sign, a symptom, of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.”
Depression, like addiction, is a by-product of a distress, or for me specifically, a disconnection so strong that it becomes a distress; a trauma. It’s a disconnect from living, not making eye contact when ordering a bagel, no joyous laughter at the park with another parent, a seductive gaze from a prospective lover, a empathetic face during times of crisis. I have been missing connections for so long I have forgotten basic social practices, such as ways to express my day-to-day nuances, riding the general irritability of a “bad day,” and the ups and downs of existence.
Up and down, up and down again. That is what depression does for me. Luckily, I have not been addicted to a substance, but I have a shitty relationship with food. It is a tumultuous relationship and it blows. There I said it.
It feels good to admit. Food and me—We don’t fucking get along. There is no consoling after stuffing six donuts down or as I stand in front of the fridge eating spoonfuls of cream cheese. There is no coming up for air because I am so stuffed that I can hardly breathe. Even food could not provide the connection I was craving. Again, I hardly saw what was going on around me.
So where is the bright side to this story?
One day, I started to articulate my desire for joy and wonder. Something that was inherent in me. I have always touted myself as a wandering spirit in constant search of curiosity. I needed to break the shell of boredom and the only way out of the dark abyss was to satiate my hunger for wonder.
I began to write about the power of awe in everyday experiences. How awe is an inspiring experience that leaves the mind and body in a state of wonder and curiosity. Often attained through powerful images of nature.
Studies cite how elusive the emotion of awe is and how it affects us culturally and biologically. The physiological effect of awe causes cytokines to lower, which are pro-inflammatory protein messengers in the body. In the case of cytokinetic hyperactivity and production, depression often results.
Awe also has a powerful impact on us behaviorally, even inspiring compassion and altruistic behavior. In one study, one group of participants were told to stand under a large, majestic tree and another group, a large building. Those who viewed the tree reported an emotional response of awe and then later elicited more compassion toward others, altruistic behaviors and provided helpful resources. This is believed to stem from the ability to take a view outside of the internal world, which awe inspires us to appreciate, and see the world on a collective scale.
The great thing about the feeling of awe is, it does not need to be experienced on a grand scale. Where I live, although it is beautiful, there are no ridges of snow-capped mountains, waterfalls to hike under, or humpback whales to kayak next to. How do I experience awe where I am, in the present moment?
Awe in nature is plentiful. Awe in everyday life had me curious.
Today, as I began to walk down a long, wet and freshly paved driveway, I was forced to walk off into the forest to the house I was working at. While I love strolling through the forest at any time, during particularly dark, depressed times, most of the scenery gets lost in the chaos of negative thoughts and perceptions. This time, I strolled slowly through a forest of stunning sugar maples with golden leaves that shrouded the dark, peeling bark of tree trunks in a golden halo. I paused to just feel it above me, enveloping and fill me with awe. I held it tightly in my dark, hollowed heart and I let it fill me. The amazing thing about the emotion of awe is it distracts us from the internal, self-serving traits like negativity, entitlement, selfishness, and even narcissism. Instead, awe inspires us to identify ourselves on more of a collective term--as a member of a group, a tribe, a team, or a culture. It is also nearly impossible to hold a dark, negative thought during the sensation of awe.
After a discouraging debacle of a political debate last night, I felt the sense of awe as countless individuals stood in solidarity for this political crisis. I was in a state of awe when I came home to a homemade pumpkin cake with gingerbread crust and cream cheese frosting. Later I giggled unapologetically with the young cashier about the song title on my daughter’s hat and ignored the dread of social awkwardness I felt before. Awe is something that can be experienced through many experiences of vast things. The ups and downs are forgotten.
Awe changed sad parts of me, if only for a moment, and sent me surging higher. I understand now how ancient philosophers would call awe a sacred sentiment reserved for the divine beings and deities. What has come to my attention is the power of awe and how it is only a perception of our world. The world is so much more than just us.
Awe is what I need, what we all need, during lost and dark times, as it gives a greater sense of connection between our internal self and the vastness around us. In daily moments of awe, I found connection. Connection to a world that I thought was cold and unforgiving to my emotional needs.
Now I am about to experience another moment of awe as my daughter and I pick through a variety of pumpkins and gourds in order to decorate our little small town life.
When you are depressed and disconnected, do not be afraid to go out and find your own power of awe. It is all around you; you just have to see it.