Awe, goosebumps and...community?
A guest post from Robyn Ryle
Before we begin
Think about those moments you have found yourself in awe. What were you doing? How did you feel? Have you ever shared those moments with others? What experiences fill you with awe? Give you goosebumps? Make you reach for that tissue?
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Meet Robyn Ryle
Occasionally thoughts gather together like tumbleweeds; our individual musings find another’s and perhaps another’s until we just have to talk about it. I’ve been salting away random thoughts about the concept of community, struggling with what it means in today’s increasingly polarized world. Turns out, Robyn Ryle, publisher of You Think Too Much, has been giving it a lot of thought as well. We decided to collaborate and bring the discussion to you for your perspective. Robyn will take over this week’s Spark as guest host and I will offer my thoughts next week on You Think Too Much. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it because I will send out a brief message to you all when it goes live.
If you don’t already know Robyn, waste no time checking out her writing over at You Think Too Much (which, by the way, is exactly what people have said to me my whole life so maybe that’s why I gravitated to Robyn). She is a sociologist, the author of two award-winning books on gender, and teaches college students in southern Indiana where she lives in a small, historic town. She has written for numerous publications and gives talks around the country about place-making and community.
Here’s what she wrote when a book by Berkeley psychologist Decher Keltner got her thinking about the connections forged in those everyday moments of awe. I loved it so much I asked if I could share it here. Take a look and I’ll join you in the comments section. - Betsy
Tears, goosebumps and awe or how much we really do need each other
By Robyn Ryle
When I hear a good ghost story, my eyes tear up. I’ve never really understood why. I don’t really believe in ghosts. I don’t not believe in them, either. But scary or not, I almost always get a little teary.
Other things that make me tear up? Weddings. The fourth of July parade in Madison (I know, embarrassing, and yet). Sappy commercials. The series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sports triumph stories. Or a story I just read about the first time Beethoven’s, “Ode to Joy,” was ever played for an audience.
While he was composing, “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven was in a bad way. Deaf. Mourning the death of his nephew, Karl. Lonely, because his deafness made it hard to socialize.
On the day of the performance, Beethoven stood before the symphony, forlorn and disheveled. He made the gestures of a madman and the musicians weren’t sure what he was trying to convey. They played the new piece. Beethoven stood on the stage, his back to the audience, lost inside the music in his head. He didn’t know when the song was done. One of the musicians had to take him by the shoulders and gently turn him around.
There he saw the audience, on their feet, waving their hats and gesturing wildly so that Beethoven, who could not hear their applause or shouts or whistles, would know their approval. So he could see what he had created—joy.
This story made me tear up when I read it in Susan Cain’s book, Bittersweet. Why?
I listened to an interview this week with Dacher Keltner, a positive psychologist with a new book about the power of awe. One of the top awe-inducing experiences for people, around the world? Other people. Acts of bravery or compassion fill us with awe. As do experiences of collective effervescence, that bubbly joy that comes with being together with other human beings. Nature is a big source of awe, too, but the top-two awe-inducing experiences are other people.
Experiences of awe have all kinds of benefits for our mental and physical health, so we should all be seeking out awe. Keltner goes on awe walks, where he purposefully pays attention to the awe-inspiring in the every day. A butterfly in February. An old man petting his dog. Old women having their hair done in the beauty shop—the intimacy and kindness of that act. People taking care of each other often fills me with awe.
Awe is an emotion that pulls us out of ourselves. Literally. The me-centered parts of our brain slow down when we experience awe.
What does that have to do with tears and goosebumps? At the very end of the podcast, Keltner explains that strong emotions give us goosebumps—emotions like awe. The phenomenon of goosebumps is the same phenomenon that makes your cat bristle up if you sneak up on them or they’re hissing at another cat invading their space. We don’t have fur like cats or dogs anymore, but what hair we have is standing on end when we get goosebumps.
In mammalian evolution, we would fluff up our fur so we could huddle together for warmth and safety in the face of threats. Goosebumps are connected to those experiences of community and connection. Primatologist Jane Goodall observed the goosebump phenomenon in apes when they looked at a waterfall. We’re hard-wired for awe and awe is about connection to something bigger than ourselves.
And tearing up? Of course, we cry when we’re angry or sad. But that unique feeling of tearing up at a wedding or a parade or a sappy commercial or when Buffy shares her power with all the other potentials or a story about Beethoven or ghost stories? Research shows what those experiences tend to have in common is community. We cry when we see people forming community. Or reinforcing community. When the audience responds to Beethoven’s symphony. When a ghost story suggests that even after death, maybe we’re not alone. What moves us most frequently are our attempts to bridge the great, lonely divide between us.
Which makes me tear up just a little bit.
The same day I wrote this, I read this essay about the effect of smartphones on kids’ health (mental, but I think it has to be physical, too, because it’s all the same thing). Check it out if you’re interested, but there’s a suggestion that things like teen pregnancy, teen car accidents and bullying are down. Good news, but it’s mostly because all those things require teens to leave the house (well, except for cyber bullying) and they don’t as much anymore. So, good, but also, sad?
It got me thinking that we may have all forgotten how to form community and connection or never learned in the first place. I have lots of thoughts on this topic, but wondered what you think?
How do you go about forming community and connection? What makes it easier? If you could break it down into baby steps, what would it look like? So let me have it—how do you make community?
Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain
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Ciao for now!
P.S. And now, your moment of Zen…Borrowed Light
I live in a historic town (in fact, Madison’s historic district is the largest contiguous national historic landmark in the United States, not to brag), which means all our buildings are much closer together than you’d get in a lot of other small towns. That’s just how they built things in the 19th century. I share a wall with my neighbor, as do a lot of buildings in Madison. There’s a street of row houses that might make you think you’ve landed in Philadelphia.
Living close together like this has its advantages and disadvantages. Natural light comes at a premium if you have buildings on both sides. Luckily, our house sits next to a church. The church is painted white, which means we get a lot of reflective light. In this picture, you can see some of that reflected light through the window and the shadow of a little bird wind chime that hangs there.
Of course, the church didn’t paint their building white for our benefit. That’s just the color most churches are. Still, as often as I can, I make myself stop and appreciate the soft glow of our house is in the mornings, even though the sun never shines directly through our windows that time of day. We turn our lights on only on the cloudy days. We move through our days in borrowed brightness. It’s an unexpected gift that comes precisely from our proximity, a reminder of the light that shines into our lives from unexpected places. - Robyn
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