I glanced at my phone yesterday to see the news headline that Paris’ famed Notre Dame Cathedral—a place that I, like many of you, I have visited on different trips to France—was burning. I was dumbstruck by this terrible news. Even for the nonobservant like me, the sacred stillness contained within those soaring walls and luminous stained-glass walls puts us in touch with something much larger than our individual lives.
To be in a cathedral, be it made up of limestone blocks or redwood trees, is to feel awe. When we feel awe, by whatever means we get there, we have the transient but precious realization that we are both so much larger than the quotidian troubles that plague us and at the same time, deliciously small. It is in this paradox that we begin to experience a sense of freedom from the unhappiness of our own making.
Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt1 describe awe in response to “vastness,” explaining subsequent behavioral and attitudinal “accommodations” that often follow the response to vastness. Psychologist Paul Piff2 and his colleagues described this experience of awe as “the small self,” in which one’s internal struggles are briefly minimized and we feel a connection to a world that is much larger than our own troubles. Awe, it seems, reminds us that we are both grandly connected to a vast universe, and at the same time, delightfully insignificant, like a single star in the milky way.
“Awe involves positively valenced feelings of wonder and amazement,“ Piff wrote, going on to say that we experience this often—when we feel part of something that is larger than ourselves, be it our families, our community, the natural world, or the human species as a whole. Despite the fractious world we currently inhabit, in the rubble of alienation and discord there is still the possibility of connection. "I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me*,” wrote the Roman playwright Terence.
In the same paper, Piff examined 5 studies that revealed a positive correlation between the experience of awe and the tendency to accommodate this experience with greater prosocial, empathic, and altruistic behaviors. Counterintuitively, when we are small, we have more to give to others. Interestingly, there is a growing body of research that the deep and enduring positive changes seen in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy are more likely to occur if the person has a deep experience of awe during the medication session3,4. Might the ailments of depression, of trauma, be at their core experiences of profound separation? If so, the experience of deep connection to something larger than ourselves is indeed a healing medicine.
So how is it that a 12th century church can inspire the experience of awe, even for people who are not adherents of the faith it houses? Perhaps it reminds us that many people, willing to be “small selves” yet working collectively, can create monuments far greater than any one person could build alone, and that we humans, despite our deep flaws, can still create tremendous beauty.
To imagine those soaring arches rendered to charred timber is heartbreakingly unthinkable, yet at the same time, we know in the innermost recesses of our souls that such losses are inevitable. “Everything we love, we will lose,” psychotherapist Francis Weller wrote in his deep meditation on grief, The Wild Edge of Sorrow.5 If we are to love, we cannot escape the clutches of loss. This is impermanence, and as much as we may protest and fear it, we cannot ever fully escape this truth.
Weller has also teaches that grief is always communal, never personal, despite the tendency of contemporary culture to try to privatize and compartmentalize our experience of grief. Seeing groups of Parisians gather to sing hymns as they watched their beloved cathedral burn reminded me that we must not grieve alone. And the world wept with them, feeling the deep loss of a place where we could experience awe and beauty. We grieve the loss of the comfort that comes from feeling connected to “the small self.”
“Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground6,” Oscar Wilde once wrote. Tonight, in Paris, and in the hearts of all those who weep, there is both.
* "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto"
5. Weller F. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2015.
6. Wilde O. De Profundis. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons; 1909.
Andrew Penn was trained as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. He is board certified as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse practitioner by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. He has completed extensive training in Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy at the California Institute for Integral Studies and recently published a book chapter on this modality in The Casebook of Positive Psychiatry, published by American Psychiatric Association Press. Currently, he serves as an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Nursing, where he teaches psychopharmacology, and is an Attending Nurse Practitioner at the San Francisco Veterans Administration. He has expertise in psychopharmacological treatment for adult patients and specializes in the treatment of affective disorders and PTSD. As a steering committee member for Psych Congress, he has been invited to present internationally on improving medication adherence, cannabis pharmacology, psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, grief psychotherapy, treatment-resistant depression, diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder, and the art and science of psychopharmacologic practice.