The value of awe

Sixteen years ago, my dad had to do business in Las Vegas. My mom and I decided to tag along since we had never been. We would occasionally travel as far as Toronto and London to visit our family, but remained in Illinois: the flat, corn-filled, uneventful-except-for-Chicago, heartland of America (that also happens to be one of twenty states without a national park).

We had as much fun as a family with a six-year-old could have in what is arguably the least kid-friendly place in the world, so we decided to take a trip to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon. Three hours later, we pulled into a rest stop and were greeted by a Hualapai man who entertained my jovial curiosity about the wonder of nature just over the hill. The Hualapai and many other tribes connect their people’s emergence to the Grand Canyon. When I followed my parents up the hill, I felt awe, not at the famously breathtaking view before me, but at the cocktail of emotions within my young head at that point. I felt fear, because up until that point I had never seen a thing this large with my own eyes; love for my parents and everyone around me for existing in a timeless space; gasping from the drastic altitude change; and sorrow for all the people who had lived there who were no longer alive. I was in awe at how the Earth had worked for millions of years to create something that impacts its cohabitants. I also thought it was indescribably cool that the man we had met earlier had such a tangible and living part of his culture right in his backyard, whereas I couldn’t even think of an equivalent for myself or anyone I knew. There was such a loneliness in the feelings I was experiencing but knew everyone else was feeling them too. That, however, did not make it less isolating. Because in moments like that, everyone is going through the same personal feelings of awe that are as variable as DNA. The best thing to do with your amazement is make it part of yourself.

Three years ago, I decided to transfer out of my university to come overseas to Glasgow. Long story short, I applied, got accepted, picked up my visa, kissed my friends and family goodbye, and was ready to begin the next four years of my life in a country I’d never been to. All in the middle of a pandemic, too! The flight from Chicago to Glasgow is not particularly eventful… rural Michigan, then rural Canada, and then 3200 kilometers of ocean (where I then adopt religion making sure the plane doesn’t crash). I didn’t expect to see the Aurora Borealis surrounding the plane outside my window. I felt a shift in values, personality, humanity, and mortality. This flight marked the end of my youth. The rest of my life really begins now. My mom always reminds me how brave and scary it was for me to leave my city, my entire support system, community, and travel internationally. That all became evident in that moment because I had never felt more alone in my life. I felt alone in accepting my ability to exist within the existence of something so immeasurable and beautiful. While I was home that break, I listened to my aunt and uncle tell me the story of how they planned their trip to Alaska for the sole purpose of seeing the Northern Lights and how when they got there, they were dim the entire week. Viewing the Aurora Borealis is unpredictable; it needs to be a dark and clear night, it must be between August and March, there needs to be solar flares/wind, and proper concentrations of gas in the atmosphere. All of which were in full effect for me. This was an indicator that I was not in my world anymore, that this is the rest of it, and this is the thing to make you believe it. I was in awe that I breathed the same air as the lights. I felt freedom in the tight window seat, and that the Earth could crush me under its sky. Connection to our surroundings is such an easy way to produce such large amounts of joy, from under the Earth to over it.

[Ari Badr – they/he – @a_j_b_a_d_r ]

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