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School Stories

Savoring Moments of Awe

By Kathy Riley, Lower School Counselor
Monday, September 12, 2022 started like many others. I was scrambling to get my family out the door, rushing to get to work on time, and anticipating my seemingly never-ending to-do list. After I parked my car in the parking garage, I had the good fortune of running into Grade 2 Educator, Katie Mimnall and her one-year-old daughter, Evelyn. We exchanged pleasantries about our weekends and how we aspire to ride our bikes to work more often. As we started to walk toward campus, I couldn’t help but be captivated by Evelyn. We made eye contact, smiled, and waved at each other. Evelyn is new to walking,
and watching her delight in this new skill just tickled me. As we approached the stairs, Evelyn reached out for her mother’s hand and then, with no hesitation, reached out for mine. Awestruck, I obliged and felt her tiny fingers clench mine as we walked hand in hand up the stairs. This sweet moment was brief but a lovely way to start my week. 

Dacher Keltner and a team of scientists at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley have been studying awe for over two decades. This is the emotion I felt when darling Evelyn trusted me enough to invite me to hold hands. The dictionary defines awe as “a strong feeling of respect or amazement brought on by something that is beautiful or sacred,” and the folks in Dr. Keltner’s lab go on to say it’s “the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or marveling at the birth of a child. When people feel awe, they may use other words to describe the experience, such as wonder, amazement, surprise, or transcendence.” They say the most common sources of awe are other people and nature, but awe can be elicited by many other experiences as well, such as music, art or architecture, religious experiences, or even one’s own accomplishments. A growing body of research suggests that experiencing awe may lead to a wide range of benefits, from happiness and health to perhaps more unexpected benefits such as generosity, humility, critical thinking, and curiosity. 

In Lower School assemblies this year, we’ve started a segment called “Moments of Awe,” where we highlight things like my brief encounter with Katie and Evelyn Mimnall, and we hope to encourage community members to notice awe in their own lives. People have already shared a variety of experiences from feeling mesmerized by aspen leaves turning colors, to watching cute puppies on YouTube that have enabled a student to shake off a negative mood, to song lyrics that have brought tears to people’s eyes because they resonate so deeply with the song’s sentiment. We recognize that human brains are constantly scanning our environment to make sure we’re safe, and if something unsafe or negative is perceived, our brain remembers this information. Our brains are going to hold on to that information and prepare should something similar happen again. Psychologists call this the negativity bias. It’s why I can have one negative experience in my day and a plethora of positive experiences, but I focus on the negative one. Our hope is that by highlighting moments of awe, we encourage community members to pause and savor everyday moments that touch our hearts. The invitation from a trusting child coaxed me into slowing down and delighting in the preciousness of human connection. It made me wonder how many other delicious moments like this that I’ve missed? As singer Jason Mraz says, let’s get out there and “look for the good!” 

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.