Moments of awe and wonder

Lake Erie sunset

As the sun slid slowly toward the horizon, the clouds above and the lake below sparkled in brilliant, changing colors. I was back home in Cleveland for a few days this week and went to the beach to watch a sunset.

It had been a long time since I experienced one of my favorite things.

There’s something about standing on a beach at sunset that makes me feel both very small and very important at the same time. Being connected to the sky, the water and the earth gives me a sense of belonging and gratitude.

Others walked along the beach and splashed in the waves as the sunset performed its magic. I stood there and watched with a sense of wonder and awe.

All I could think was: Wow!!! Just wow!

When the sun slipped below the horizon and the sky’s colors started dimming into shades of gray, I turned and headed away. And I asked myself why I don’t do this more often.

The sun rises and sets every day in such spectacular ways. Why don’t I pay more attention?

Caught up in wonder

I’m bad at math, but by my calculation I’ve been given the gift of 22,570 sunsets and sunrises in my lifetime. Think of that – more than 22,000! Yet, how many of them have I actually noticed?

Very few, to be honest. I get so busy and caught up in the everydayness of life that I don’t remember to stop what I’m doing, look up and go: Wow!

And I’m the one missing out.

Deeply spiritual people remind us that those moments of awe and wonder bring us an experience of the Creator as well as the amazing creation. Such moments are drenched in holiness. They’re always right with us and available to us; we just need to notice them and allow ourselves to be swept away by them.

Why don’t we do it more often?

One of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is a reminder that such moments are at the core of what it means to be truly alive.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted,” the rabbi wrote. “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And those moments aren’t just individual experiences, either.

Such sacred moments

A few years ago, I was walking along Siesta Key in Florida as the sun was setting and transforming the color of everything around it. Perhaps a couple hundred people were enjoying the beach sunset with me.

Some of them were jogging. Others walked along listening to their music. Each of us was in our own little world, caught up in our own thoughts, doing our own thing.

People ahead of me stopped in place and started pointing toward the gulf. I stopped and looked as well. A pod of dolphins was playing in the sunset-tinged waves, splashing about in a way that made you smile.

Soon, most of the people on the beach had stopped to watch and talk to one another and marvel. It was a true “awe” moment that made you go: Wow! Look at that!

This diverse group of people – different ages, different backgrounds, different religions, different political outlooks – stood on the beach together and shared a collective moment of wonder. Strangers smiled at one another and talked to each other.

Our sense of awe overcame our differences and brought us together. It was a sacred moment in every sense.

We need more of those moments, don’t we?

Our collective awe

There’s so much frustration and division in our societies. It’s easy to feel like nothing can bring us back together and help us remove the walls and artificial divides we’ve spent so much time and so much energy erecting.

Maybe one way to do it is to get our heads out of the busyness of our daily lives and make ourselves aware of the wonder all around us. Allow ourselves to get caught up in the bright blessed days and dark sacred nights, as Louis Armstrong described them.

As we do, we’ll get the attention of the person next to us – the one who might feel so alienated from us – and simply say: Wow! Look at that! Aren’t we blessed to be able to experience this together?

Our shared sense of awe can humble us and reconnect us.

Would you like me to take your picture?

FamilyCleveland

We were at the back of the line, waiting our turn to take a family photo in one of Cleveland’s parks. The city’s name is spelled out in a display that overlooks the lakefront and downtown. It’s perfectly placed to make a postcard-worthy keepsake.

Most of the fun came from watching each family take its turn and seeing everyone interact. There were Clevelanders and out-of-towners, people of different ethnic backgrounds, total strangers waiting patiently for their turn to do something fun.

First, they took turns doing something kind. A family would get ready to pose, and the family behind them would offer to snap the photo for them so everyone could be included. A total stranger would show another total stranger how to focus their camera phone and then hand it over.

Smile. Snap. Snap. Snap. Wait! One more just in case! Smile and snap while the kind stranger takes one final shot.

And then, it was the next family’s turn to share in the group photo project. Total strangers took each other’s photos, ones that would be posted on social media and maybe framed and hung on the wall back home next to the graduation and wedding and travel photos.

How utterly cool is that?

When my family was done posing and saying cheese, I asked the family behind us if they’d like me to do the honors. A woman who appeared to be the mother didn’t respond. It was as if she didn’t understand what I’d just said.

Turns out, she didn’t.

The family was Hispanic. She spoke very broken English. After a moment, she recognized what was going on, smiled and very politely said no thank you. As her family got ready to pose, she recognized how the stranger-turned-friendly-photographer thing worked, and she allowed the family behind them to take their picture.

Smile. Snap, snap, snap. Wait, one more! Snap. And then they did the same.

People speaking different languages figured out a common language. Different worlds, same world. Different families, one family.

Again, how utterly cool is that?

The photo session came at the end of a tough week for all of us. More black people killed by police. Police officers gunned down by a man filled with hatred. And on the other side of the world, countless people getting blown up by others filled with hatred.

There are times when hatred seems to overwhelm us. Darkness seeps inside of us for a while. We’re tempted to think that the whole world is a dark place.

But it’s not. It’s always followed by a sunny, breezy, hopeful day of smiling photos.

The truth is, there’s far more love and life in the world than there is hatred and death. Kindness is our human default setting – for most of us, anyway. If we pay attention, we see countless acts of kindness all around us every day.

#LoveWins isn’t just a slogan. It’s us. We doubt, we struggle, we reach the end of our rope. And then we pull back and we let love do its healing, resetting thing. We find a place deep inside of us – a familiar place where humanity and divinity intersect – and we start again.

Snap. Wait, one more. Smile again!

Honestly, given how many of us there are and how much we endure each day, it’s a wonder that there’s not more ugliness in the world. And yes, it’s true that there are some people who, for whatever reason, seem to be missing the divine DNA of kindness. Maybe they’ve been hurt so deeply that it’s scarred over. Maybe they’ve simply made the choice to hate because it’s less challenging than love.

Who knows?

Here’s what we know: Most people strive to get along. We recognize that we’re all the same in the ways that matter. We care about each other. We speak the same language even when we don’t know the same words.

And we consider it a wonderful thing to hold a stranger’s phone in our hands and do something for them that they will cherish. Something that reminds us of what we’re all about.

With each touch of the screen, we take our collective family portrait.  Snap! Wait, one more!

OK, here’s your phone back. Oh, you’re most definitely welcome. After all, someone else just did the same for me. And the picture is perfect.

In every way.