I was struck this week by the comparison of the size of an atom. If the proton at the centre of an atom were the size of an apple, the electron that is floating around it would be the size of sugar cube and be spinning in an orbit two kilometres away from the apple. The rest of the ‘sphere’ that makes up an atom is, as far as we know, empty space. The presenter I watched went onto emphasize that an atom is 99.99999999999999999% empty. A whole lot of nothing!
I read recently that our body is made up of about 100 trillion cells and each cell is made up of about 100 trillion atoms. That multiplies up to: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms (28 zeros there) or to make it easier, 10 Octillion atoms (thank-you Siri), in the average human body. But if this is true, then my body is also 99.99999999999999999% empty space. So why do most of us believe that the body and everything around it is solid? Perhaps there something filling the space that I think must be empty? Perhaps it is filled with energy, vibrations, dark matter? Perhaps solidity is an illusion, as is all of reality. Einstein said so, but he qualified it by saying that it was a persistent illusion. Thinking like this causes me to pause and think deeply and wonder.
For me, this is a moment of Awe. I am struck by the wonder of it all. Where there is virtually nothing, I can sense a whole world. When quantum physicists got together with cosmologists, they discovered that the images they saw when looking into an electron microscope and looking through a powerful telescope were pretty much the same: a lot of empty space dotted by the tiniest of lights. This is incredible! This leaves me in a state of disbelief and yet at the same time, full of wonder at this truth. The British expression, ‘Gobsmacked’ fits here. It’s somewhere in between Homer Simpson’s ‘Doh!’ and Archimedes’ cry ‘Eureka!’ Yes, gobsmacked: the wonderment and astonishment of it all.
I watched a video last week on YouTube presented by Andrew Kirby. He’s a young chap from the UK I discovered last year when I was looking for information on Stoicism. In this video he said he believes being filled with a sense of awe can affect our lives even more powerfully than gratitude. When we are in a state of awe, we acknowledge that we are in the presence of something far, far greater than ourselves. We feel extremely small and insignificant relative to it. Perhaps you’re at the top of a cliff looking down at the waves crashing down below, sitting quietly inside a magnificent cathedral or gazing into the eyes of the Mona Lisa. And even though we sense how great this thing is and how infinitesimal we are, we still feel a deep connection to it.
When I was on the tour of the Vatican Museum years ago, we were escorted through room upon room of many of the great works of art: oils, sketches, frescoes, sculptures. There is so much art that great artworks lose their significance; it’s just one more Titian or another Michelangelo. I was following the crowds going at a fairly quick pace through gallery upon gallery when I turned. There before me was Raphael’s masterpiece, The School of Athens. Having studied art history as well as having studied the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, I knew the fresco. I had seen photos of it, heard about it’s significance to art, to the politics and to competing philosophies at the time. And there it was! I wasn’t expecting to see it. I didn’t know it was in the Vatican Palace. And suddenly, there it was in all of its eight by five metres renaissance splendor! I was filled with awe: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with wonder or fear (thank you Oxford Dictionary). And I was connected to the subject, to the artist, to the ideas expressed and to the moment, a moment that, obviously, has stayed with me ever since. I couldn’t say anything; I was gobsmacked!
Yes, we hear the word ‘awesome’ so often that most of its true meaning has been sucked out of it. It is still a good word to use in situations like this. When I am at the cliff edge staring down, I have a feeling that goes beyond being grateful to experience this moment. It’s a ‘be still and know’ kind of moment. It’s a ‘OMG’ kind of moment. It a ‘being completely in the now’ moment. It is a very humbling moment and a deeply spiritual moment.
We need more of these awe-some moments in our lives. We can seek those moments out. Find a place to live that inspires you. Visit the Grand Canyon, climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, witness the miracle of birth, watch a flower unfold. Discover places and moments that fill you with awe in the truest sense of the word.
And what will this do for us? How does being full of awe help us? We connect. We step back. We relate. We are grateful. We are happy to have been a part of this experience that no video or still, no description nor writing and no telling could ever completely encompass; a moment that will impress feelings and emotions so deeply into our psyche that it can never be erased. We will have a sense that in some respects, although we are insignificant, and realizing that there may be more stars in the heavens than there are atoms in our bodies, we have communed with the divine.
Find your awe!