An Existential Threat

Scientists used to think there were only six human emotions — anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear and sadness. We now know there is a seventh: awe.

Awe is the feeling, registering more in our body than our mind, that we’re in the presence of something so vast and deep and powerful that it swamps our present understanding of the world. A skyful of stars in the middle of nowhere. A soaring piece of art. An act of wild kindness, fugitively glimpsed.

Or an existential threat.

Awe is unlike anything else we humans experience. When it shoots through us, we enter a kind of altered state. We become superhuman, sleeper agents suddenly activated for a purpose we never prepared for, and barely understand.

Awe interrupts the trance, silences the static and replaces it with the clarity of mind to understand what our job is now.

The craving to be part of a bigger project, this is the “collective effervescence” Emile Durkheim spoke of: an energy and harmony that only happens when we huddle up on strong groups for a shared purpose.

People suddenly understand where they fit in the story of the world, now and going forward.

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