THE NEW WEST: Standing In Awe

By on August 23, 2017

When nature wows us, we become more charitable citizens.

A Greater Yellowstone sunset. (Steve Kelly)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Where were you during the great solar eclipse? What kind of sobering sensations fired across the ancient synaptic pathways linking your mind to body and spirit?

Quite possibly, the conjunction of moon and sun was, for some, just another one-off event, a been-there, done-that moment, enabling the seeker to boast forevermore of having witnessed a cosmic alignment yet holding little capacity for pondering its deeper meaning.

For others, the eclipse was a lesson in humility, summoning reflection on what the rendezvous might offer in making them better people.

Mother Nature gives us reasons to stand in awe every single moment. 

But could it be that by dwelling in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a region so resplendent with natural mysteries, we become desensitized sometimes, needing an eclipse to remind us of the power of awe?

We know, based on thickening reams of scientific evidence, that letting awe seep into our being can be transformational. Literally, it can alter perception in positive ways. 

When awe happens on a mass level, experienced jointly by tens of millions at a time, like this week when the moon blocked out the sun, could it—should it—result in greater appreciation and respect for the natural world?

While I was researching my book on Ted Turner, Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet a few years ago, there were several things I wanted to know: one was any correlation between Turner the fiscal conservative, socially-progressive billionaire and Turner the successful businessman who became a selfless conservationist and philanthropist.

For him, awe for nature played a pivotal role. As he was building TBS and CNN into paragons of modern media technology disruption, an internal impulse began taking hold (which I’ll explore in future columns).

During the onset of middle age, Turner deepened his connection to the wild outdoors by buying properties and protecting them with conservation easements. The reasons were amorphous yet instinctual.

As it turns out, science offers an explanation: People who spend more time immersed in nature tend to be more empathetic, kinder, gentler and more giving souls. As exposure increases over their lives, they become more capable of thinking not only about their own self-interest but also across generations.

In Turner’s case, it resulted in a realization that by doing what one can to protect nature it also yields benefits for human communities. While still possessing a large ego, he derived enormous satisfaction by being magnanimous.

Two years ago the study “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It corroborated other scientific findings showing that people who derive awe in nature admirably become better citizens.

“Awe arises in evanescent experiences. Looking up at the starry expanse of the night sky. Gazing out across the blue vastness of the ocean. Feeling amazed at the birth and development of a child. Protesting at a political rally or watching a favorite sports team live,” lead author Paul Piff, from the University of California-Irvine, wrote with colleagues.

“Many of the experiences people cherish most are triggers of the emotion we focused on here— awe. Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.”

Looking around Greater Yellowstone, I see plenty of people, many with significant means, who are drawn to the awe of the region’s wild lands. Once infected with biophilia and embracing conservation, they grew happier, were more pleasant to be around and felt more firmly grounded in making a positive difference in their community.

In Latin, the term alteri huic means “to this other.”  In English, it is the root of the word “altruism,” i.e. exhibiting selfless concern for the wellbeing of other humans, animals and even places. Simply put, within the context of Greater Yellowstone, it translates to putting the best long-term interest of a place ahead of our own desires to exploit it in ways that might do it harm.

With the eclipse, countless millions of dollars and mountains of human time and effort were expended simply to put people in a position to witness a natural event that arrived and passed within a couple of hours. 

What a shame it will be if, in the end, it was all for naught; if by coming together and standing beneath a cosmic happening, we still lose sight of the real wonders that exist every day right beneath our feet. Wonders that, with continued exposure, produce better communities and generous citizens heeding the power of awe. PJH

Todd Wilkinson, editor of mountainjournal.org, has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. He is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 featuring 150 pictures by renowned wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen. Autographed copies available here.

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