I’ve written before on the downstream effects of small any seemingly insignificant acts of goodness. Through our deeply interconnected world, we can never fully appreciate how our actions will impact others and our broader communities.
Awe can open up the door to new frontiers allowing us to break through the mold of rigid patterns of thought. Our self-interested preoccupations seem insignificant. Egoistical desires diminish.
Keltner documents the many health benefits of awe ranging from physiological (slows heart rate and deepens breathing) to psychological (reducing negative self-talk).
Although it is common to think of awe being associated with nature or the arts, there is one area of interest in Keltner’s work I want to zero in on – moral beauty. These are actions of selflessness, virtue and goodness. They need not be necessarily heroic acts worthy of ‘news’ per say, but ones which are played out in our day to day lives.
Keltner’s research demonstrated that after surveying individuals in different countries, cultures and religions, acts of moral goodness was one of the main reasons that caused people to feel awe. Acts of kindness such as helping strangers, providing for those in need of financial need or even reading about our spiritual role models all led to more awe.
Witnessing the selflessness of others can provide us with hope and inspire us to take action ourselves. These types of actions remind us that our wellbeing and contentment is not a merely individualistic affair. It is deeply intertwined to the prosperity of our networks and communities. Everyone living in a society relies on the work of others in the broader economy.
We don’t have to wait for moments of awe to arise in our lives. We can pursue awe through purposeful and active engagement in the world.
It begins with cultivating our attention, through relishing in the beauty of both the actions of others and the natural world.
Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.
We all love a good hero story. They supply us with inspiration and hope. Many follow a typical narrative structure that we have become familiar with. An individual, against all odds, overcomes immense trials and tribulations to achieve their goal. From ‘rags to riches’ stories to the spectacular feats performed by our favourite superheroes, these tales continue to be pervasive in our culture.
But what about the ordinary? Those who gracefully perform small acts of goodness collectively transform the world we live in.
It was a quote at the beginning of the film A Hidden Life that captivated my interest and persuaded me to dive into the novel Middlemarch by George Eliot. 
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
The book follows the interconnected lives of characters experiencing the challenges, ambitions and societal expectations in a small rural town (Middlemarch) in the 19th century.
What drew me to the book was not the storyline per say, but rather the extensive time and effort spent on character development. George Elliot allows the reader to intimately view the psychology and thought process of many of the main characters in the story. These inner deliberations provide insight into their decisions which ultimately shape the course of their lives.
The Beauty of Ordinary Life
Middlemarch’s main protagonist Dorothea Brooks does not perform any grand feats throughout the book. Rather her virtue is exemplified in small cumulative acts of generosity.
Yes, like any human being, she makes errors of judgement. Her naïve idealism leads her to neglect the advice of others and results in the disastrous marriage to Mr. Casaubon. However, as the novel progresses, Dorothea demonstrates maturity and her depth of character learning from the many challenges she overcomes throughout her life.
Dorothea doesn’t leave her ‘mark on the world’ as many readers would have hoped for. Nonetheless, her acts of selflessness and courage help transform the lives of others. This is evident in her resolve to help the repair the marriage of her friend Lydgate when he is ostracized from society by false accusations of bribery.
Middlemarch reminds us that the real heroes are not only the individuals we see praised in the history books or tabloids. They are everyday ordinary people who inspire us with their grace, empathy and affection. In an interconnected world, our small insignificant actions end up having a greater impact than we may intend.
Our individual moral choices that we make day in and day out do indeed matter. Their consequences not only affect the lives of our friends and family, but spread like ripples throughout out broader communities.
I have written before that the beauty of great literature is that is enables the reader to glimpse into the mind of another, and open oneself up to broader perspectives.
It is far too easy to be critical and judgmental on people or circumstances that we do not fully understand. Moreover, while we often can offer sound advice to others, we never can fully appreciate how we would have acted if we really stepped into someone else’s shoes.
The narrator in Middlemarch enables the reader to step back and look at the seemingly rash or foolish decisions in a new light.
Take for instance the many personal disappointments and professional shortcomings of Mr. Casaubon. Examining his life based on his external achievements, he is judged by society as a failure. His wife Dorothea comes to the realization that he is not the man she once thought he was. The project he devotes his life to writing, The Key to All Mythologies, is ultimately unsuccessful and incomplete by the time of his death.
However, the narrator advises the reader to look at his faults from a different vantage point , where the reader can understand the workings of his psyche and have compassion for his shortcomings.
In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us
The narrator continues to plead for sympathy,
For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self– never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted
After three monthsand almost 900 pages later, I finally finished Middlemarch. While it was indeed a lengthy book, and at times the plot moved at a slow pace, the witty and charismatic writing of George Eliot kept me engaged throughout the novel.
Through its focus on viewing events from a myriad of different perspectives, Middlemarch encourages you to move beyond your narrow egocentric world view.
While the actions of certain characters in the novel may seem reprehensible, Eliot persuades the reader look more closely at the circumstances they find themselves in to evaluate the complexities of their inner life.
Middlemarch reminds us that the world can also use a bit more sympathy.
You have upended the lives of many amidst the economic uncertainty and the rising anxieties posed by inflation.
You have put the world on edge as we witness citizens around the world fighting corruption in autocratic regimes for liberty, justice and equality.
You have shown us the fragility and vulnerability of our precious beloved planet. We remain in a state of unease and trepidation facing the continued risk of an ongoing environmental crisis.
We may long for utopia, a panacea of relative stability and assurance, but perhaps the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty.
How could we ever expect things to smoothly in a world as complex as ours? The tighter we hold our grip, the more we begin to realize how little control we do have.
What if we were to let go of our predetermined plans or expectations and lean into the unknown. Only then can we fully welcome and embrace the beauty of the present moment. We can draw our heightened attention with awe to the mystery and wonder of the miracle of life on earth.
As our rigid patterns of thinking fade away, new paths begin to emerge. Novelty, creativity and excitement emanate as we gradually walk through the fog of the uncertainty.
Uncertainty requires patience. Uncertainty requires grace. Uncertainty requires faith in the goodness and resilience of the human spirit.
We can have reassurance in the strength found in our character and inner life.
As I put away my preconceived plans and expectations for 2023, I slowly walk towards the unknown in 2023 with a resolve to lean into the great unknown.