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Awe and Wonder

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

Villagers in Honduras experiencing the wonder of listening to the heartbeat of a wild scarlet macaw, guided by Dr. LoraKim Joyner.

One Earth Conservation’s Nurture Nature Program aims to inspire, motivate, educate, and support people to take care of themselves, their organizations, other individuals of all species, and the biotic community as a whole by developing their awareness and understanding of nature, especially human nature as it relates to all of nature. Participants are then able to leverage this awareness and understanding to nurture themselves and others, leading to the growth of more efficient and resilient nurturers (one who nurtures any aspect of the biotic community) and “naturers” (one who cherishes nature and pursues opportunities to do so) for the benefit of all life. The excerpt below focuses on the importance of nurturing awe and wonder.

People report having three awe-inspiring experiences a week. How many do you have? Think back on this week – how many times did you drop your jaw or open your eyes in amazement? Do you wish you had more wonder in your life? Whatever you answer, there are reasons to cultivate more wonder.

To understand why we would want more wonder, let's think about why it exists at all. Where did it come from? No one is sure, but it seems that it comes from a long way back. Jane Goodall was observing her chimpanzees in Gombe when she noticed a male chimp gesturing excitedly at a beautiful waterfall. He perched on a nearby rock and gaped at the flowing torrents of water for a good 10 minutes. Goodall and her team saw such responses on several occasions. She concluded that chimps have a sense of wonder, even speculating about a nascent form of spirituality in our simian cousins.

Wonder helps us connect with that which is good. Wonder, like other emotions, evolved as a motivator to help us move towards satisfaction or benefit, and away from discomfort or harm. It balances with other emotions. A classic example of this how people react to live encounters with a bear in the wild, at least classic for those of us who have lived in Alaska where all life can be distilled down to bear stories or metaphors. Wonder draws us out to the woods in hopes of seeing a bear, and fear makes us keep our distance. Too much fear and we never go out, too much wonder and we are lunch.

Wonder helps us move towards that which is good or might be good for us. We open, we connect, and life’s possibilities open before us. Wonder helps us engage with the world to live in ways that integrate the reality that beauty is ever present. And it helps us face the also true, but harsher, reality of harm, illness, death, and disappointment. Without wonder, we risk closing off to life, living shallower lives, experiencing less intimacy and vibrancy. One study showed that if you take teenagers rafting, a week later they report being more engaged and curious about the world. Wonder also lifts depression, and research has demonstrated that after experiencing wonder people have less inflammation in their bodies, as measured in their saliva. It also helps our prosocial behaviors – we become more empathetic, humble, and generous. When we have more empathy, others resonate with us better and we have improved relationships. Our self identity moves from a separate self to being part of a whole, or the whole itself. By merely writing about awe, we become kinder and more compassionate, and this can extend to other species and the biotic community as a whole.

I lead Nurture Nature workshops and retreats where we look out how we have choice in moving towards that which is good for us and others. How can we nurture human nature so that we can nurture all of nature is, I believe, an important question in this time of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and extinction. And two primary aspects of human nature we nurture is wonder and its partner, empathy.

There are many ways to nurture wonder, as Rumi wrote: “Let the beauty we are be what we do, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Let me suggest four ways that all involve slowing down. An overall methodology is this:

  • Notice the small things

  • Learn side by side,

  • Provide resources for deeper exploration. This means learning the science and mechanics of existence.

  • Make connections showing how we all are part of the web of life. Repeat, repeat, repeat this understanding of reality.

The above is an excerpt from “Nurturing Discussions and Practices: Nurture Nature, Yourself and Your Relationships” by Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner and Gail Koelln.

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