Sometime in the fall of 2020, I decided to name my Covid-19 hypochondria. I christened her Vanessa. It made it easier to casually discuss my perpetual fear that my throat was sore, that my forehead felt hot, that my tummy roiled ominously.
Vanessa wasn’t the only obsessive tic I developed over the course of Covid; like so many others, I washed my groceries, furiously wiped door handles and light switches, and pulled the handle on the tiny gun-shaped thermometer every day before I sent my children off to school. In November, with the election looming, fluttering panic attacks made it difficult for me to focus on work. After the January 6th Capitol attack, I started taking Lexapro. Meanwhile, I walked the same streets, saw the same few friends (outside, at a distance), and supported the same local restaurants by eating the same chicken tacos. While I kept tabs (and sent those meaningful Facebook hearts) to those suffering in other parts of the world, the truth is that for me, and likely for many secure, upper-middle class families, Covid meant a kind of curling inward, a constant assessing of my own and my family’s mental and physical wellbeing.
In June 2021, I left Northfield, Minnesota, with my husband and two children for a nine-day road trip. We camped at a farm in South Dakota and then watched the kids gallivant across the other-worldly formations at Badlands National Park. In Thermopolis, Wyoming, they splashed in warm mineral hot springs and in Torrey, Utah, they rode horses through dry, red stream beds.
We’re not the only family who road tripped this past summer. By August, Yellowstone had filled with over 4.5 million visitors, a 37% increase from the previous year; Zion National Park and Arches National Park boasted 81% and 87% increases respectively. I wonder if, like me, other Americans were feeling something they haven’t felt in sixteen months. Not just relief that Covid numbers were waning, not just happiness to see real smiles on unmasked faces, not just the joy of new experiences, but awe. Awe is an emotion we don’t talk about much, but I am convinced that it might just be the balm we don’t realize we need.
Unlike happiness or joy, emotions that turn us inward, toward ourselves, awe focuses our attention outward. We don’t feel awe when we accomplish goals or acquire material goods; awe comes to us mostly when we encounter a new sense of vastness. Most often this happens via exposure to art or music or, as we did these last nine days, through panoramas in nature. Awe is a sweep of red cliffs, an arch of golden rock, petroglyphs scratched in stone, lunar hills sprouting out of flat green mist. Awe is purple thunderheads thickening over clumps of sage or the soft curl of microbes turning mineral-laden water titian and viridescent and ivory.
Unlike happiness or joy, emotions that turn us inward, toward ourselves, awe focuses our attention outward.
Awe is an asocial emotion that, counterintuitively, makes us feel more connected to others. Why? Because awe is attached to humility. Seeing the vastness of a landscape or a sweep of stars or waterspouts swirling above the Atlantic, we remember that we are small and that we are dependent on one another. In this sense, for me, awe is a deeply Christian emotion. Awe connects me to others, to the world, and to God.
As we waited to pay our fee to enter the Badlands, I whined to my husband about the leather clad men on motorcycles gunning their engines in front of us. They were prototypical bikers: grizzled and bandana-ed, prompting questions from our children about helmet safety. But when we pulled our car over at the first vista, when my seven-year-old clutched my hand and uttered the word “wow” endlessly, one of the bikers shouted over to us: “Hey, see up there? Big horn sheep.” We followed his pointed finger to the furred form picking its way across the rocks. “Wow,” we said a few more times. The biker did, too.
I am aware of the privilege of the Great American Road Trip. From what I can tell, it is mostly a white endeavor, and certainly it requires the privilege of time and money and a reliable vehicle. The privilege of my skin color made me feel safe in areas where Black and brown folks often do not feel comfortable. At the same time, in the midst of climate change, political division, and the continuing toll of white supremacy, there are certain people in our county in need of a considerable dose of humility. I am one of them. And instead of arriving at humility via the well-trodden paths of failure or shame, awe offers us humility through the force of wonder.
My seven-year-old clutched my hand and uttered the word “wow” endlessly.
Now that we are firmly back in Minnesota, battling another Covid surge and steadily darkening days and far from the supernatural beauty of the West, awe is slightly harder to come by. I find myself turning to art instead of landscapes: the 12th century abbey of Lauren Groff’s new novel Matrix, the mesmerizing dancers at my library’s Hispanic Heritage celebration, and even the sequined dresses, rolling fog, and soaring voices of a production of Frozen at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. For me, awe has become not just an occasional experience into which I might magically stumble, but a necessary way of being in the world, one that I am responsible for discovering.
At some point in the middle of our road trip, my husband nicknamed the car’s voice command Vanessa. That felt good and right. It was time to let hypochondriac Vanessa go, time to follow a new voice into a vast and unfamiliar horizon.
Instead of arriving at humility via the well-trodden paths of failure or shame, awe offers us humility through the force of wonder.