After an exhausting month of flooding, hail, and tornadoes, I think we all can agree that Texas weather is awesome -- in the old sense of the word.
Casual use has reduced "awesome" to an exclamation meaning very good ("awesome steak!") or very exciting ("awesome touchdown!"), but to be awesome in the classic sense, an object or event must do more than please or entertain. It must rattle the perceiver's outlook on life.
In 2003, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt reviewed treatments of awe in religion, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. They identified two recurring themes: vastness and the need for accommodation.
Vastness refers to the fact that awe-inducing things are experienced as much larger than the self in some way. The night sky reminds us that we and the planet we inhabit are miniscule compared to the universe. A dinosaur skeleton or ancient artifact shows us how short our lifespans are in the scope of time. A tornado reveals how powerless we are in the grasp of nature's fury.
Accommodation becomes necessary when we can't assimilate an experience into our existing frames of reference, so we must accommodate the experience by adjusting our frames of reference or by adopting new ones. Awesome experiences have inspired people to change their attitudes, lifestyles, or even their core beliefs.
When we stand in awe of something, our sense of self diminishes as we focus our attention outward and submit to something (nature. . . time. . . God. . . reality. . .) greater than ourselves. At its core, awe is submission.
When asked to recount occasions when they felt awe, most people name nature as the source. An encounter with a great white shark or a visit to the Grand Canyon can nudge us from our habitual perch at the center of the universe.
Art and other manmade objects rank second only to nature as sources of awe. Music, paintings, novels, movies, skyscrapers, and cathedrals can make us re-evaluate our assumptions about ourselves and reality.
Awe can also have social sources. People who attribute "larger than life" qualities to charismatic politicians, royalty, sports figures, musicians, and actors could be considered "in awe" of their idols. Someone in a large group of people may get a sense of merging with something larger than himself of herself. The shared experience of a concert or religious revival and the "us against them" vibe of a political rally or sports event promote this collective form of awe.
A study released this month suggests that by putting our petty personal troubles into perspective, awe can make us more willing to help others, so it looks like the same storms that batter some Texans' homes and businesses also incline those victims' neighbors to lend a hand.
Tommy Richardson lives in Erath County. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.