Awe Can Be a Force for Change

How to use symbols in work for peace and human development?

I was moved by an email I received some years ago from Samaritan Inns, which serves homeless people. “At Samaritan Inns, during every counseling session, we set out one empty chair. Every client knows that this chair represents the person who isn’t here yet. This is the next client that walks through our doors and onto the road to recovery.”

That empty chair is a potent symbol of hope. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to place it, or to explain the meaning of its presence. It may be forgotten during most of an intense counseling session.

Yet it serves as a tangible, here-and-now reminder of things every person in the midst of crisis or suffering benefits from remembering.  They are not the only one who suffers. The journey of recovery awaits, for all, whenever we choose to begin it. There is hope for things to get better.

As a symbol, the empty chair invokes these things without preaching, without words. It speaks silently, by its mere presence, to depths that reside in all human beings but often remain untouched.

The Deep is that inexplicable, ineffable source of grace, hope, creativity, and awe that shows up in certain moments and spaces for human beings ready to receive it.  Is it spiritual?  Yes, but you don't have to be religious to experience it.  Is it physical?  Yes, but no scientific theory comes close to being able to account for it. 

Researcher and author Dacher Keltner studies what I call the Deep as an unrecognized emotion, awe, "the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world."  In an inspiring and provocative book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life" (Penguin Press, 2023) Keltner describes many ways to increase our awareness of awe, and our ability to enrich our lives and relationships by taking it in.

If we recognize this place and develop practices for engaging it, we can make what I call a Call to the Deep, that is, we can do things that invite resources from the Deep into our lives and relationships.  Religious leaders and traditions, of course, have known this for thousands of years and orient followers around it.   This was my early life experience and Christianity remains my orienting framework of life and meaning.  I am deeply grateful. 

But I now know that no religion has exclusive rights of access to the Deep, nor to the meaning of the experience.  Ability to access this terrain does not confer rightness, let alone ownership, on those who do so.  "We see through a glass darkly," wrote Paul, the most authoritative of early Christian interpreters.  In fact, encounter with the Deep, like any experience of power, brings temptations to abuse.  All of us have been subjected to people who shout out their Call to the Deep to others or try to impose their interpretation on others.  There's no place that we should be more uneasy with Calls to the Deep than when they are issued by people confident in their occupation of territory in the Deep.  Unfortunately this calls for great caution among religious people. 

In the modern world, many have rightly rejected such manipulation.  But often we also "throw out the baby with the bathwater". In adopting practices of interaction stripped of symbols and moments to engage Depth, we cut ourselves off from the most powerful source of energy for creativity, connection, and change available to us.  

The Deep that resides within each human being, or “beyond”, if you prefer, offers its power only to those who seek it through hopeful choice. Loud proclamations, angry condemnations, and invocations of guilt obstruct access to this place.

In today’s  world of competing narratives we’ve exhausted the power of words to call upon that place of deep knowing where we hear and remember Depth.  I’m quickly bored and rarely moved by verbal strategies to take us there. I’m refreshed, intrigued, and inspired by non-verbal ones. Movement, symbol, rhythm, sound, art, silence. 

With what symbols do you or might you remind people you care about that they are not alone in their pain, that “this too shall pass”, that warmth and love still exist even if we don’t feel them right now, that moments of “better” will come, that forgiveness is possible? 

What strategies and practices have you experimented with, or better, built into the routines of your work or life that invite all present to the River, that place of the Deep where human beings meet hope, light, and possibility for fresh beginnings?

If you were to place an empty chair or some other symbol in your classroom, workshop, session, or meeting, how would you describe its purpose to those who inquire?