Seek Some Awe

William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, once said, “Religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge.” I totally understand what Mr. James is communicating. I have had many experiences of awe when out in nature. But first, we should understand what awe is.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines awe as a feeling of great respect sometimes mixed with fear or surprise. Now that word fear usually confuses me especially when talking about awe.  We typically think of fear as being afraid of something or someone. However, Dictonary.com says in addition to being afraid, fear is reverential awe, especially toward God. The Free Dictionary describes awe as a feeling of respect or reverence mixed with dread and wonder, often inspired by something majestic or powerful.

Dacher Keltner, Professor of psychology at the University of California, defines awe as the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world. So the way I understand awe is that awe are those moments when we experience something majestic or powerful; when we feel wonder. They are the times when we have an encounter with the divine. They are moments when we in some way experience God or the Source of all Being or something mystical. It’s when you are touched at a soul or spiritual level; when what we are witnessing or experiencing is beyond our understanding.

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17Many astronauts talk about their experiences of awe when looking at the planet earth from space. Alan Shepard, Apollo 14 astronaut said, “When I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the Moon, I cried.” Russell “Rusty” Schweikart, Apollo 9 astronaut said, “When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change … it comes through to you so powerfully that you’re the sensing element for Man.”

One of the best known for his experience of seeing Earth from space is Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell who said:

“That’s a powerful experience, to see Earth rise over the surface [of the Moon]. And I suddenly realized that the molecules in my body, and the molecules in the spacecraft and my partners had been prototyped, maybe even manufactured, in some ancient generation of stars. But instead of being an intellectual experience, it was a personal feeling… And that was accompanied by a sense of joy and ecstasy, which caused me to say ‘What is this?’ It was only after I came back that I did the research and found that the term in ancient Sanskrit was Samadhi.”

Oxford dictionary defines Samadhi as a state of intense concentration achieved through meditation. In Hindu yoga, this is regarded as the final stage at which union with the divine is reached. In essence what Mr. Mitchell is saying is he felt some sort of union with the divine.

Susan Santucci, a learning specialist and author says, “Watch for glimpses of the divine order.  Find those experiences, sights, and sounds, which fill you with awe.  Any experience met with awe can be spiritual:  a safari through an animal kingdom, taking in a sunset, a hike to an awesome mountaintop.”

P1030507editedI have hiked in the mountains with my son and friends and family for many years. I have to agree with Susan Santucci as every time I stand on top of a mountain, I feel that sense of awe. For me, it is a spiritual experience. It is an experience where I am overtaken with the beauty of the mountain landscape. I have this same experience when I am at the ocean. Standing on an ocean beach, looking at the vast amount of water in front of me sets me into a state of awe. Sunsets do the same. When my wife and I were in Europe a few months ago, we were blessed to see numerous sunsets and even sunrises. It never ceases to amaze me how beautiful those magnificent colourful skies can be. Each sunrise we beheld on our trip was uniquely beautiful. I have a sense of awe or wonder every time I am lucky enough to see the northern lights or the aurora borealis. For me, each of these experiences were, as Dacher Keltner put it, a feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends ones understanding of the world.

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Yes, I understand some of the science behind how mountains are built with colliding tectonic plates. I comprehend that when the Sun appears lower and lower on the horizon, its light needs to pass through more of the atmosphere to reach our eyes, so as the sun drops towards the horizon, it progressively loses violets and blues, then greens and yellows, and finally even the oranges, leaving only the reds behind. It is mind-boggling to comprehend that 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by ocean, and the deepest known area measures 11 kilometres (6 miles) deep.  I understand that the aurora borealis occurs when collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with its gases. As amazing as the science is, when I experience the above-mentioned things I experience something beyond my science understanding. My experience is met with awe and wonder. When I am experiencing these things I touch the divine.

I had another one of these experiences when my daughter showed me a video of Jeffrey Li, a 10-year-old boy from Canada, and Celine Tam, a 7-year-old girl from Hong Kong, performing a duet of the song “You Raise Me Up”. I was blown away. These two singers literally took my breath away. What I heard from these two young people touched me at a soul or spiritual level. It made me ask, “How can a seven and ten year old have singing voices like this?” The singing voice of these two “kids” was beyond my understanding. If you haven’t seen the video, check it out below.

Maybe it is time to seek out more of those awe experiences, whatever they may be for you. In fact, doing so just may make the world a better place. Articles such as High on Wonder: People Who Experience More Awe Are Nicer, Better People, and The Key to Fulfillment claim science is providing empirical evidence that awe is the emotion that motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. If we choose to get rid of the some of the distractions like cell phones and watching television in our lives and seek to put ourselves in new situations such as going to new places, and meeting new people, this may increase our chances of encountering awe. If it is true what the studies are saying, experiencing awe will make us better people. I implore you to seek out some awe and wonderment in your lives. You will be better for it!

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What to believe?

Napoleon Bonaparte was once reported to have said, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”   George Kitson Clark once said, “No historian should be trusted implicitly.”  Norman Pearson is quoted as saying, “To look back upon history is inevitably to distort it.” There was a time whenever I read something in a history book or was taught something in a history class, I believed it to be the “Gospel truth.”  Now being older and wiser I no longer do.  So why would I say that?

imagesI recently read a book titled, Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. What surprised me, was that Mr. King claims that the massacre that allegedly occurred at the Alamo was a fabrication, a story created over the years. But that is not what history says.

I did some internet research and Wikipedia says this about the Alamo massacre: “In the early morning hours of March 6, 1866,  the Mexican Army advanced on the Alamo. After repulsing two attacks, the Texans were unable to fend off a third attack… Between five and seven Texans may have surrendered; if so, they were quickly executed. Most eyewitness accounts reported between 182 and 257 Texans died, while most historians of the Alamo agree that around 600 Mexicans were killed or wounded.”  I checked other websites which say more or less the same thing. So who is right?

Mr. King also says, the story about Pocahontas and John Smith, perpetrated by Disney’s movie Pocahontas  is also a myth, or in other words a fabricated story. He claims that John Smith would have been 24 years old and Pocahontas maybe 10 or 12 years old at best.

Now Disney’s version of the story is one of romance between an American Indian woman named Pocahontas and John Smith, who journeyed together to the New World with other settlers to begin new lives.  Do the children, or even adults for that matter, who have watched this movie believe they have watched a historically accurate depiction of events of the past?  Probably.  My experience as a teacher has been most young people think what they see in movies and on television is truth or is real history. At least Wikipedia sets the record straight about the story of Pocahontas as it says, “In a well-known historical anecdote, she [Pocahontas] is said to have saved the life of an Indian captive, Englishman John Smith, in 1607 by placing her head upon his own when her father raised his war club to execute him. The general consensus of historians is that this story, as told by Smith, is untrue.”  So we know Mr. King is likely right about the Pocahontas story.

In July of 2007 while on a family trip to Eastern Canada,  we visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, NS. At that time there was an exhibition on pirates. It was interesting to learn that commonly held belief that pirates make their enemies walk the plank as well as the belief that  pirates often have parrots on their shoulders are myths. We learned that these are myths. There apparently is no historical evidence to support these commonly held beliefs about pirates. Also, the wide held belief that pirates buried their treasures is also a myth. I guess I was somewhat disappointed to learn about these untruths as I always thought pirates did bury their treasures.

So what else have we been taught that is NOT a historical truth?  According to the article, Facts Prove Everything You Thought You Knew About History… Is Dead Wrong, Christopher Columbus did not discover America. He only discovered the Caribbean Islands.  I don’t know about you, but I was taught in school that Columbus discovered America.  It has been proven that the Vikings were in North America before Columbus as there is an archeological site at the northern tip of Newfoundland where they discovered the remains of the Viking’s houses. In fact, they reconstructed a replica of the settlement about 100 yards away from the site. It has been unquestionably determined that the Vikings were there for about 10 years, specifically, Leif Erikson and his extended family. I guess I can erase that untruth from my memory.

Dictonary.com defines the “Napoleon complex” as the condition of being small in stature but aggressively ambitious and seeking absolute control. It could just as easily be called the “Short Man Syndrome.” In other words, this complex is named after Napoleon Bonaparte because of the widely held belief that Napoleon was short. But according to the 16 facts article I referred to earlier, the truth is Napoleon Bonaparte was not short at all. He was five feet, seven inches. That was slightly taller than average for a Frenchman at the time. Another historical inaccuracy to erase from memory.

The idea that Albert Einstein failed math in school is an urban myth (see 20 things you need to know about Einstein). It turns out that Einstein didn’t fail math in school, it was a false claim published by Ripley’s. The truth be known is that when he was 15, he mastered differential and integral calculus which makes sense since he is widely held as one of the world’s few geniuses.

Then there is the History Channel series called Hunting Hitler that proposes that Hitler faked his own death, escaped through the Berlin underground to an airport, flew to Spain where he was smuggled onto a U-boat and taken to Argentina with a stop at the Canary Islands. He then lived hidden in the Argentina jungles and was eventually seen in Brazil and Columbia. Now I was always taught that Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin in 1945 although this apparently has never been confirmed. Now I must say after watching eight episodes and considering the evidence provided, I am now thinking what I’ve been taught about Hitler is wrong. I am now leaning towards the premise that Hitler did not die in his bunker in 1945.

Louis_RielIn Canada, history has always taught that Louis Riel, a Canadian Métis trailblazer, who led two resistance movements against the Canadian government and its first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald was a traitor. He was a traitor because he led two rebellions known as the Red River Rebellion of 1869–1870 and North-West Rebellion of 1885. In July of 1885 Riel was charged with treason. Riel was publicly executed by way of hanging in November of 1885. Since that time, the majority of Canadians have held the belief and been taught in school that Louis Riel was a trouble maker; someone who betrayed Canada which is why he was hung for treason. This is what I was taught in school and I have always believed that he was an insane traitor of Canada.  Ironically, on March 10, 1992, the Parliament of Canada passed a unanimous resolution that named Louis Riel as founder of the Province of Manitoba, because of his role in defending the interests of the Métis people and contributing to the political development of Western Canada.  So what is the truth?  Was he a traitor or was he one of Canada’s founders?  Personally, I now side with Riel as a hero who was willing to stand up to the government of the day for the rights of his people; the Métis people.

So what is a person to believe?  Should we trust what we read in the history books or what we see on the History Channel? I think not.  We must at the very least be skeptical. It is interesting how a person can grow up learning about historical events only to discover later in life that those events are untruths, or at least they have been exaggerated.  Having taught Social Studies for years, I have always taught my students to be skeptical.  History involves interpretation of the events that occurred in the past.  Therefore, interpretations can be slanted, exaggerated, and falsified.   To quote the Roman poet Phaedrus, “Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.” Things are seldom what we’ve been led to believe. I guess now I have become a bit of a skeptic.

What is the matter with our youth?

niBBgppxTOver the last few years, because I was a veteran teacher, I’ve been asked many times if kids or youth of today are different compared to those when I started teaching.  That is a really interesting question; a question I have pondered for a while. There is no doubt that there are differences in the youth of today compared to say 35 years ago when I began my teaching career, or even 15 years ago for that matter.  But does that mean young people are different from the youth of previous generations?  That question always brings me back to a couple of quotes I first read in a book many years ago.

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint”.

So have “kids” changed?  Are the youth of today different?  I don’t believe the youth of today are any different from the youth of previous generations.   Children have always been mischievous.  Young people have always been self-centred. Kids have always rebelled against authority when they could.  There has always been a generation gap. All one has to do is remember the beatniks and hippies of the 1960s and 1970s  The two quotes above also illustrate this.  Does the first quote sound like something an older person of today might say?  You bet it does!  The surprising thing is it is actually a quote from a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit in  C. E. (A.D.) 1274.  That was said 741 years ago.  The second quote is reported as being said by Hesiod, a Greek poet in 8th century BCE (BC).  He is generally thought by scholars to have been active between 750 and 650 BC. so that means he said this well over two thousand years ago.  I don’t know about you, but it sounds like youth have not changed in thousands of years.

So why does the youth of today seem so different compared to previous generations?  I believe there are two key reasons for this.

The first reason is due to the fact that today’s culture is very different from previous generations, and the biggest difference is technology.  The generations of today have all sorts of technologies that were not prevalent 20 years ago.  Today we have cell phones, computers, calculators, and the World Wide Web, otherwise known as the internet.  When I was in school in the 1970s, there weren’t even calculators.  We had to use slide rules when attending high school math classes. For you youngsters reading this, that was a ruler-like contraption that was used primarily for multiplication and division, and also for functions such as roots, logarithms and trigonometry. Addition or subtraction had to be done using pencil and paper. In my experience, computers did not really start appearing in my world until the 1980s when the Commodore 64 came out in 1982. I never had one, but I was envious of those individuals who had one.  The internet became available to the world in 1991.  So the youth of yesterday did not have access to the vast amount of knowledge the internet provides.  For the most part, people still had to rely on libraries to get information. Today, the culture is very different. Young people have come to expect things instantly.  They expect instant calculations using calculators.  Kids expect to find the answers to their questions within seconds and not to look in books to find them.  This is why the youth of today are not as patient.

The second reason has to do with parenting.  Today there are so many parents who “smother” their children.  They are always hovering  and waiting to swoop in and rescue their child whenever their child whimpers. We in the teaching world call these parents “helicopter parents.”  The kids of today for the most part are not allowed to “fall flat”.  They are not allowed to learn from their failures because their parents are always rescuing them.  This is why we are raising a generation that may not know how to handle failure.  Young people need to fail from time to time so that they learn how to be stronger; so that they learn from their mistakes.

Not only that, sometimes kids need to be taught values like respect through discipline.  They need to be taught that some behaviours are undesirable.  When I went to school, my parents always reminded me and my siblings that if we got in trouble at school, we would be in trouble at home. And they meant it. In my experience, this doesn’t happen much any more. They typically blame others for their child’s behaviour. So many parents of today do not “parent” their children.  They give children whatever they want.  This creates a generation of entitlement. The youth of today expect all things immediately, such as a new car or a new house.  Previous generations just accepted  this would take time to get and would have to work for it.

So, are young people different today compared to the youth of generations past?  The short answer is NO!  It is the parenting that is different and the culture that is different.  Kids learn these behaviours and develop traits like impatience from the older generations. This is why children behave differently.  So don’t blame the children, blame the parents; blame the culture; blame the adults.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There are a lot of great parents out there who don’t always give in to their children and who believe in strong discipline and not of the corporal kind either.  It’s just that they are in the minority.  Parents need to be parents. There are lots of great things about our culture and its technologies.  We just need to learn as a society how to use the technology appropriately and respectfully.

What is really happening?

I have always been intrigued by the idea of aliens from another planet visiting our planet earth.  I’ve watched Hangar 1: UFO Files on the History Channel a number of times and have found the stories of UFO sightings and encounters quite fascinating.  When you “google” the words UFO sightings you get 1.8 million hits.  That says there must be something to these UFOs.  So when I cam across the story on Fox News: Apollo 14 astronaut claims peace-loving aliens prevented ‘nuclear war’ on Earth, I had to read it.  After all, this was a story involving the sixth man to walk the surface of the moon.

The story centres around Edgar Mitchell, an astronaut who was on the Apollo 14 mission in 1971.  He told Mirror Online, an online tabloid, that top-ranking military sources spotted UFOs during weapons tests. He told us military insiders had seen strange crafts flying over missile bases and the famous White Sands facility, where the world’s first ever nuclear bomb was detonated in 1945.

Mr. Mitchell’s story falls right in line with one of the episodes of Hangar 1: The UFO Files that I saw in April of this year.  The episode was called UFOs at War.  This episode maintains that in every war throughout history there were sightings of multiple UFOs over battlefields. That included recent conflicts such as the Afghanistan war and Iraq wars. The episode was attempting to determine if the purpose of these UFO visits was to harm us or were their visits to warn us of our own potential self-destruction? I certainly was fascinated by the topic.

I have an active brain, so when I hear, see or read about phenomena such as UFOs, I get curious and want to know more.  Mostly, I want to know if this could be true.  So I turn to the internet to learn more.  Now one has to be careful using the World Wide Web as there is lots of misinformation on it.  I always try to use information from credible sites or from credible people. In this case, I looked to Stephen Hawking who was a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and author of A Brief History of Time which was an international bestseller.  Furthermore, when you research the smartest people living today, Stephen Hawking almost always appears as one of the ten smartest people alive today.  So I reason what he has to say is credible.

ufoIn the article Stephen Hawking: Earth could be…, Hawking says, “The existence of 100 billion galaxies each containing hundreds of millions of stars means Earth is unlikely to be the only place where life has evolved,  To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like”.  The article also says that Professor Hawking has been open-minded to the existence of extraterrestrials before, but the discovery of more than 450 previously unknown planets orbiting distant stars since 1995 is believed to have strengthened his belief that life exists outside of earth.

In another article Stephen Hawking: We been overlooked, Hawking says, “that there are other forms of intelligent life out there, but that we have been overlooked. If we should pick up signals from alien civilizations, we should be wary of answering back, until we have evolved a bit further. Meeting a more advanced civilization, at our present stage, might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus. I don’t think they were better off for it.”

Now I agree with Hawking views. I thinks it is just arrogance and naivety for humans to think we are the only living creatures in this vast universe. An article titled, Ignoring 500 Billion Galaxies, says, “There are some one trillion galaxies in the known universe and some 50 billion planets estimated to exist in the Milky Way alone and some 500,000,000 predicted to exist in a habitable zone [a zone where life is possible]”.  The article goes on to say, “Astronomers estimate that there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe. If you want to extrapolate those numbers, that means there are around 50,000,000,000,000,000,000 (50 quintillion) potentially habitable planets in the universe”. The odds of the planet Earth being the only planet in the universe with life seems to be against us.

I especially agree with Mr. Hawking that we humans are not all that evolved.  One just has to look at the way we treat one another to determine where we are on our evolutionary path. I figure if we are at war with one another and killing one another then we can’t be too far into our evolutionary development.  Add to that the fact that we mistreat our planet with pollution. Evolved civilizations would not do these things to themselves and their planet.

In the article, Aliens are coming,  NASA’s Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan claims, “First contact with alien life will happen very soon. I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.”  Stofan has held the most senior science position at NASA since August 2013, so what she has to say must be credible.

Now, I know it is difficult to know what to think or believe.  If you use the internet you will find convincing arguments both for and against claims that aliens are among us.  Having said that, I prefer to think that if aliens are indeed among us. then they are here for the betterment of humankind, so maybe they are protecting us from ourselves.  For me that is more comforting than extraterrestrials preparing to invade and destroy Earth or it’s inhabitants.  They don’t need to destroy humankind as we are doing a good job of that ourselves.