Discover more from You Think Too Much
Tears and goosebumps and awe
Or how much we really do need each other
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When I hear a good ghost story, my eyes tear up. I’ve never really understood why. I don’t really believe in ghosts. I don’t not believe in them, either. But scary or not, I almost always get a little teary.
Other things that make me tear up? Weddings. The fourth of July parade in Madison (I know, embarrassing, and yet). Sappy commercials. The series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sports triumph stories. Or a story I just read about the first time Beethoven’s, “Ode to Joy,” was ever played for an audience.
While he was composing, “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven was in a bad way. Deaf. Mourning the death of his nephew, Karl. Lonely, because his deafness made it hard to socialize.
On the day of the performance, Beethoven stood before the symphony, forlorn and disheveled. He made the gestures of a madman and the musicians weren’t sure what he was trying to convey. They played the new piece. Beethoven stood on the stage, his back to the audience, lost inside the music in his head. He didn’t know when the song was done. One of the musicians had to take him by the shoulders and gently turn him around.
There he saw the audience, on their feet, waving their hats and gesturing wildly so that Beethoven, who could not hear their applause or shouts or whistles, would know their approval. So he could see what he had created—joy.
This story made me tear up when I read it in Susan Cain’s book, Bittersweet. Why?
I listened to an interview this week with Dacher Keltner, a positive psychologist with a new book out about the power of awe. One of the top awe-inducing experiences for people, around the world? Other people. Acts of bravery or compassion fill us with awe. As do experiences of collective effervescence, that bubbly joy that comes with being together with other human beings. Nature is a big source of awe, too, but the top two awe-inducing experiences are other people.
Experiences of awe have all kinds of benefits for our mental and physical health, so we should all be seeking out awe. Keltner goes on awe walks, where he purposefully pays attention to the awe-inspiring in the every day. A butterfly in February. An old man petting his dog. Old women having their hair done in the beauty shop—the intimacy and kindness of that act. People taking care of each other often fills me with awe.
Awe is an emotion that pulls us out of ourselves. Literally. The me-centered parts of our brain slow down when we experience awe.
What does that have to do with tears and goosebumps? At the very end of the podcast, Keltner explains that strong emotions give us goosebumps—emotions like awe. The phenomenon of goosebumps is the same phenomenon that makes your cat bristle up if you sneak up on them or they’re hissing at another cat invading their space. We don’t have fur like cats or dogs anymore, but what hair we have is standing on end when we get goosebumps.
In mammalian evolution, we would fluff up our fur so we could huddle together for warmth and safety in the face of threats. Goosebumps are connected to those experiences of community and connection. Primatologist Jane Goodall observed the goosebump phenomenon in apes when they looked at a waterfall. We’re hard-wired for awe and awe is about connection to something bigger than ourselves.
And tearing up? Of course, we cry when we’re angry or sad. But that unique feeling of tearing up at a wedding or a parade or a sappy commercial or when Buffy shares her power with all the other potentials or a story about Beethoven or ghost stories? Research shows what those experiences tend to have in common is community. We cry when we see people forming community. Or reinforcing community. When the audience responds to Beethoven’s symphony. When a ghost story suggests that even after death, maybe we’re not alone. What moves us most frequently are our attempts to bridge the great, lonely divide between us.
Which makes me tear up just a little bit.
If you follow me on social media (you do, don’t you?), you might have seen that I have a piece in the Playing Authors anthology, from Old Iron Press. Old Iron Press is a new, female-led, independent press based here in Indiana and so happy to part of their exciting new venture. The anthology will be coming out in the fall, so look for announcements about where and how to buy your copy. My piece is about Hemingway and, yes, there are cats.
Also, it’s break week (thank the gods), which means I have more time and brain space, so look for another post later this week for paid subscribers—a behind the scenes look at the self-publishing process. Which is ongoing! I don’t have a definite date yet, but look for my young adult novel, FAIR GAME, about a girls basketball team that challenges the boys to a high-stakes game, to be available for pre-order soon. There will be lots of opportunities to be on the launch team and to help with spreading the word, so get ready! Get excited! Go team!