It's getting harder and harder to find genuine surprise around us as our society lackadaisically drudges towards apathy … good thing there's antidote to indifference.
Remember that time when you hiked to the top of a fourteener and felt nothing but a vague sense of burning in your thighs? Or when you watched an entire concert through the lens of your phone's camera? Maybe you recall a recent solar eclipse or meteor shower, one that you looked at briefly and went "Huh …" before going back inside to Tweet some shit about Caitlyn Jenner?
Everywhere you look, awe for the natural world is waning. In its place, indifference.
Awe is the main incentive for exploration, whether that be scientific, geographical or social. It's the emotional, heart-wrenching feeling we get from awe that makes connect to the world around us in ways that further our own well-being.
Awe itself is a hot commodity these days, but the demand far outweighs the supply. It's getting harder and harder to find genuine surprise around us as our society lackadaisically drudges towards apathy. Technology, information overload and over-discovery have squelched our ability to feel surprised, and the anti-spiritual cynicism of the post-hippy world has made awe is more of an aspiration than an achievement.
However, as spirituality wanes and technology takes over, actual, honest experience is the new faith we have to ascribe to if we want to escape the clutches of indifference. For most people who can afford it, travel, is the most efficient means of doing this. Throwing yourself into a foreign situation in which you're confronted by novelty or indescribably beauty from all angles kicks awe into hyper-space, but even that has become tainted by the internet. Whereas before, the vast expanse of the earth remained unexplored by you, the internet allows you to teleport to every landscape, learn every language, study every culture, and even suggests local restaurants where you can sample cuisine from the opposite side of the planet. Awesome places, thanks to technology, have become nothing more than exotic locales we can experience remotely from the cush of our couches.
Of course, the downfall of wonder and the dilution of the human condition is just the price we pay for social progress. Awe, after all, was much easier to come by in a world where nothing was at our fingertips except rocks we threw at saber tooth tigers.
Picture yourself as a Stone Age hunter witnessing a solar eclipse or a tornado (not a Sharknado, a legit one). You don't know whether it's a temporary phenomenon, an orbital idiosyncrasy, or some heavenly wrath impressed upon you for sacrificing an insufficient amount of children and baby lambs for their pleasure. So you tremble, piss your bearskin undies, and invent religion to explain it. Fast forward to this millennium, and picture yourself hearing rock music for the first time, or losing your virginity. The novelty of those experiences is overwhelming and pleasurable in ways that transcend mere physicality. That, right there, is how awe was done since Cro Magnum morphed into Homo Sapiens. But now, we're drowning in musical options and sex is thrown at us from all corners of our visual field. Even the things that used to titillate us seem regrettably commonplace.
Even the power religion itself to instill awe has been watered down by human advancement. Today, miraculous occurrences are so often explained by empirical data and science, rather than by transfixing mythologies, that the awe we get from discovery often comes from being impressed by the human effort it took to discredit a myth or the advanced machinery it to photograph a cellular process. In the past, when people could come up with their own explanations for occurrences, awe thrived. But the more we understand their actual causes, awe pulls a "Bye, Felicia" and hightails it out of your brain.
The result is a distinctly modern predicament in which awe plays hard to get; desperately sought after yet hard to pin down. Our culture is all grown-up now. Most questions have been answered. And like the adult who realizes Santa isn't a real man, he's a just a marketing scheme, we're becoming jaded by over-exploration of our crowded world. Not to mention that it's hard to be in awe of something when it's been preceded by a 24-hour news coverage that sucks every last drop of mystery out of it.
Even when we do feel awe, things like Photoshop and CGI come along and outdo reality. The Aurora Borealis is magnificent to the naked eye, but when transposed into photo editing software and beautified for maximum ocular impact, it's impossibly more breathtaking than the original. Often today, we find awe in worlds that only exist in 3D fiction; places like the movies Avatar or Gravity which test the limits of sensation in ways the natural world can't. When the Lumiere brothers premiered their first 50-second movie in a Parisian theater – of a train chugging towards the camera – people ran out of the auditorium screaming. Now we watch The Hobbit, where innumerable masses of orcs, trolls and bloodthirsty dwarves appear utterly, compellingly alive, and walk out of the multiplex feeling nothing.
Perhaps the greatest issue with awe, however, is that the more you pursue it, the less gratification you get. A planned, studied event you're prepared for is inherently less awesome than one you experience unexpectedly. So, the paradox is that even if you go chasing awe, you might not find it. Your expectations of awe can easily lead to disappointment.
So, what do we do about this? For some people, the answer lies in pushing the limits of their physical and mental capacity even further. Ever seen one of those people jump off a mountain in a wing suit, or had a friend tell you about how he left his body on DMT? In the pre-industrial world, few people felt drawn to mountains. They were death traps from which you'd often return with less limbs that you originally had. Now, people climb up frozen waterfalls with pick axes and jump naked out of helicopters into their dense foliage to prove to themselves they're capable of survival. As awe fades, peril has become coveted because it's the straightest shot to wonder. Adrenaline-junkies, more than any of us, know that awe is within reach when you walk the line between life and death.
But, for the rest of us who swear to fucking god we're never jumping out of a plane, real awe is still attainable. But, it doesn't come from the beaten path or the Yelp Top 10. Anything that informs you that you should be awestruck isn't going to satiate your need. Today, awe comes from the accidental and the unannounced.
So, the best thing you can do in today's atmosphere of apathy is to leave yourself open to new experiences. Know that there's genuine surprise in the unplanned, and say yes to as much as you can. Otherwise, you confine yourself to indifference, and really, what's the point of chugging away at a life where nothing surprises you? Don't look for surprise, let surprise surprise you.