Connecting with Awe Through Stories

Many people assume that awe only is possible through direct, personal experience. Encounters with something vast and overwhelming in the natural world may come to mind as examples. There are many other ways to be awestruck, however.

For instance, some stories can create opportunities for awe, as they can transport us beyond our ordinary lives to other contexts.

One study conducted by Melanie Rudd and colleagues demonstrates this. Participants in this research tried to identify with what a main character felt as they either read about them climbing the Eiffel Tower to see Paris from on high or ascending an unnamed tower to see a plain landscape. Remarkably, those who read the passage about the Eiffel Tower felt more awe, believed that time was more available, and reported more satisfaction with their lives.

Some authors may be particularly adept at evoking awe through story. There are many examples, but Elizabeth Gilbert is one who seems to have an eye toward awe in both her fiction and non-fiction writing.

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For instance, in her book, Big Magic, Gilbert tells a story from her 20s when she was working on a ranch in Wyoming. In the middle of one particular warm summer night, she and some of her cowboy friends decided to see if they could “call” some elk in the woods. Notice how Gilbert describes what eventually unfolded:

“All at once there was a thunder of hooves… and then a crashing of branches, and then the biggest elk you ever saw exploded into our clearing and stood there in the moonlight, just a few short yards from us, snorting and pawing at the ground and tossing his antlered head in fury… We cowered behind a boulder. We gawped at the elk in wonder while it blew clouds of frosty breath, furiously looking for its rival, tearing up the earth beneath its hooves. When you see the face of God, it is meant to frighten you, and this magnificent creature had frightened us in exactly the same manner. When the elk finally departed, we inched our way back to the ranch, feeling humbled and shaken and very mortal.”

Individuals who can put themselves into Gilbert’s shoes are likely to experience awe. Given the potential for stories to evoke awe, you might consider trying the following:

1. Identify possible sources of awe-inspiring stories such as the one above. Good literature, biographies, and sections of a sacred text often provide such opportunities. Ask for recommendations from trusted sources if you don’t know where to start. For biographies, in particular, think about people that have a certain mystique and that you admire. As you read, try to feel what the main character(s) felt.

2. Arrange an opportunity to exchange awe stories in a group, perhaps as a part of a dinner party. Instruct individuals who participate to share details of where they were, what happened, what they thought, how they felt, and the impact of the experience long-term. Alternatively, identify natural opportunities to listen to others tell stories involving awe. For instance, when family and friends return from travel to an awe-inspiring location, take the opportunity to ask them to elaborate on their experiences of awe. Relax and try to experience what they felt.

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