ColumnSome people experience overwhelming awe in church, some on magnificent mountaintops, some in elegant equations. But some of us tend to get “it” when witnessing stunning examples of our human footprint. If that sounds like you, you just might be a humanist—something with very down-to-earth implications.
“I was blown away.” The phrase is used so often it’s a wonder we’re all not aloft. “Awesome!” A term so ubiquitous, you might find yourself yearning for the run of the mill. Indeed, if every OMG! were an honest-to-god conjure of what’s holy, His/Her/Its omnipresence would be completely and finally undeniable.
Of course it’s easy to pick on our culture’s most overused overstatements. (OMG aside, the above are certainly part of my vocabulary). But if we dial down the hyperbole for a moment and honestly think about the things that make us dizzily reach for the nearest handrail, we’re likely to learn a lot about who we are and what makes us tick.
Consider that second glance, the super serious one, that says, “No, really! I was blown away!” This usually features earnest and pleading eye contact that begs you to believe and embrace the gravity of what the speaker is gushing about. The subtext: “I’ve experienced something beyond words.” (So to speak.)
For most of us, the varieties of religious experience are evidenced as many. (I use the term “religious” advisedly, requesting some latitude from my fellow nonbelievers.) We know this because, hopefully, we know a variety of people. I, for one, have dear and respected friends who have been knocked off their horses by the Judeo-Christian King of Kings, both with and without the help of his also-divine son. Other believers I know have experienced more creedless, less-moderated Big Moments with what they perceive to be supernatural forces. Alas, such supernatural events have never happened to me.
Others tend to have their wow episodes in or considering nature, sitting on a mountaintop, watching the ocean’s waves or simply staring up at the vastness of the cosmos on a starry night. These happenings reportedly include a number of overwhelming sensations (smallness, bigness, existence, nonexistence, self, non-self) and a feeling of oneness with the universe. For a range of folks, from Buddhists to Gaians to Newtonians, our natural world offers up awe like candy, if we only take the time to look, pay attention and feel.
Unlike being touched by the supernatural, these natural episodes have happened to me. It would be something if they didn’t, living as I do in Northern California where a four-hour radius from my front door offers up glories like Yosemite and the shores of the Pacific. Over my lifetime, too, I’ve had the great fortune of experiencing marvels ranging from the Arctic Circle to the Gobi Desert. I’d have to be pretty thickheaded not to have been occasionally swept away. I, too, can be floored by the awe and joy of being a part of the universe and it’s clockwork workings, whether known, yet to be known or forever unknown. Yet despite its power, nature, per se, is not my biggest mind blower.
To Each His Swoon
The name of this column, HyperKulture, refers to a psychosomatic phenomenon that presents “rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art.” In its debut, “In Swoon’s Way,” I wrote about a recent trip to Europe during which I had experienced a number of such events (healthily upright though I remained). Today, looking back at those moments and holding them up alongside similar events throughout my life, a pattern has emerged.
What sends my mind off its rails are the awesome things we humans do. (Yep. Awed. For real.) This goes back to what prompted my first swoon—Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon (though this is probably a swoon-after memory of a memory given the fact that I was only 5 when it happened). In fact, I remain blown away by that historic feat; just conjuring it in my mind for more than few moments can make me dizzy and if I really push it, even a little teary. I mean, the dude left the earth and walked on the moon. WTF?!
Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve had a number of these man-made experiences. Visiting Atelier Brancusi, listening to the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” reading Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” enjoying a dinner once prepared for me by Chef Paul Prudhomme—all head-spinning. Even imagining indirect experiences—Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, MLK’s Dream, the idea of Amelia Earhart taking off into the ether—can totally spin me out when I give them more than just passing thought.
Don’t get me wrong. It takes a lot for someone or some deed to set me off—and sometimes it’s unpredictable. Why did that Caravaggio at the Met that one day spike my BP and send me running out to the street for air when all the other masterpieces I saw before it left me relatively unshaken? And what was it about that one time at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington? Why was that visit so different than all the other times I stood inside its colonnade? Who knows what kind of perfect brainstorm has to occur to rock my world?
In any case, to my religious friends: Some of your prophets. Holy shit! The idea that actual people have had that kind of impact on the world? That their ideas would hold such power and sway? Wow, man. It still baffles me that the Buddha came up with what he came up with. And to my science-focused friends, about those elegant equations that so turn you on? Given that the math is way above my pay grade, it’s the scientists themselves who suffered and slaved to arrive at such beautiful truths who ignite my wonder. Newton. Einstein. Hawking. When I think about what these people accomplished and the impact they’ve had on how we live every day—oh my!
Yep. For me it’s the humans. How about you? Have you been set asunder by Homo sapien heroics? World-renowned feats of wonder aside, are there people in your life who have done the unimaginably awesome? Your grandfather’s charity? Your mother’s unconditional love? Your aunt who lived gracefully with disease and died with strength and dignity? Maybe the person with whom you shared your first kiss? For those of us who have this mortal-creature-based swoon pattern, may I suggest that perhaps we have—heaven forbid!—an ism.
Us and (Just) Us
There’s no simple, all-purpose definition of humanism. Its many facets include historical, academic and philosophical angles dating back to well before the term came into use during the early Renaissance. But for these purposes, let’s use one that seems to be recurring and general enough to get the job done: “A system of thought that focuses on humans and their values, capacities and worth.”
Of course, there’s nothing in those words about the type of “religious” experiences I’m speaking of here. In fact, most definitions of the philosophy (or worldview or whatever you choose to call it) allude to it being distinctly rationalist and secular (big draws for me). But if we can agree with the idea that there are instances of experience in our lives that at least seem to be transcendental, then perhaps it’s okay to go ahead and give humanism its religiousy due.
Einstein here: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”
The great scientist was speaking broadly and, of course, addressing rapture emanating from far beyond our actions on the ground. And let’s be clear: No one would go so far as to call humanism a religion. But for those of us who ascribe to this philosophy in its secular form, we can indeed point to our very own swoons and appreciate our awesomeness in what some might go so far as to describe as a spiritual way.
However you characterize the idea of humanist rapture, if you’re going to go ahead and claim the ism there are ramifications of such a throw-down—there is no doubt a yang for this yin. While most definitions of the philosophy speak to our ability (and even inclination) to make the world a better place, there is another side of the equation that speaks to something darker about our ability to achieve.
Yes, our capacity for evil is awesome too. While there are heroes who can truly make us swoon, just watch and listen and know about the bullies, as well. The beheaders, the fundamentalists, the reactionaries—know that the visceral shudder you get when you see their “achievements” is just rapture turned upside down. We humanists can’t offload the sublimely destructive on a less-than-benevolent god, the weather or the downside of an equation. If you’re anything like me, this dark side of our awesomeness can be as mind-blowing as the brilliant side. Oh, the humanity—and the voodoo that we do.
Scott Adelson is EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott at adelson dot org and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.
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