Whether star gazing or navel gazing, humans experience awe and wonder in their world. We see dragons in clouds, and Jesus’ face on a piece of toast; we hear cosmological choirs in a symphony orchestra, and we interpret design in the natural environment even though we evolved to fit inside its parameters. Our tendency towards Pareidolia makes us creatures who are hard wired to find comfort, security and meaning in patterns and interpretation. Sometimes those interpretations can be profoundly life changing.
“There are moments in your life that make you and [set] the course of who you’re going to be. Sometimes they’re little, subtle moments. Sometimes, they’re big moments you never saw coming. No one asks for their life to change, but it does. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.” – Unknown.
One of my earliest memories is from my very young childhood, when my family was out for a Sunday drive. Suddenly, we heard the sound of an ambulance siren, and my father (who was driving) pulled over to let the ambulance overtake and speed ahead – right through a red light intersection that lay ahead. I asked my parents why they were allowed to do that.
Mum and Dad explained that the ambulance had special permission under the law, because they were on their way to help save someone in an emergency. Over fifty years later, I recall that moment – I was dumbfounded and nearly burst into tears; deeply, profoundly touched that the law recognised the value of human life, and was prepared to allow ambulances to break ordinary laws if it meant helping to save someone. It was perhaps a definitive moment in my early life, when I understood that humans were capable of great nobility.
In subsequent years, I came to understand that many people value such transitional moments or flashes of insight, and they often seek vocabulary to clarify or express the import of those moments: spirituality, transcendence, the miraculous or the numinous. Whole religions have risen up in search of answers to explain such times of inner existential reflection.
But for me, this is one significant feature of the human creature – our ability to ponder and reflect, and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. We see it everywhere – from Harry Potter books that enrapt a generation with their implicit message of finding something magical in the everyday; to our ability to marvel at the night-time sky. For me, this is not divine revelation or fate; it is simply the ability of sentient humans to seek, find or create significance for themselves.
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
A more recent transcendent moment took place after I had faced heart surgery and the possibility of my own mortality. Some relatives visited me in the hospital, and gave me a photo of a baby that had just been born into the family. I instantly fell in love with the child not only because he shared my DNA, but also because he represented something more fundamental: the potential and hopes for life itself. Amidst my lonely cogitations of possible mortality, here was a baby showing me that life goes on regardless of anyone’s individual circumstance. I was greatly comforted with the profundity that I was part of a species and an organic flow of life that would continue whether or not I was there to participate further. Where some people sought consolation in religion as something bigger than themselves, I was comforted to know that the human species – and life itself – offered its own version of collective immortality through biological survival.
Beyond humans, our biosphere is filled with other species that also share our biological imperative to survive. I wonder if, like humans, other sentient species also have their own versions of numinous experiences?
“What a piece of work is [humanity], How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty…” – Shakespeare..
Our search for ‘spirituality’ should be recognised as a pilgrimage in search of our secular selves, warts and all. Carl Sagan acknowledged that “We are a way for the universe to know itself” and such a revelation is both reassuring and terrifying in its aspiration and its possible outcomes. We do not need a stone age deity or a new age mystic to tell us that we are filled with potential; our individual ideals and visions are a Rorschach test of our inner personalities. Our self awareness compels us to seek enlightenment or significance in nature, music, arts, hobbies, or philosophies, but our answers – and the transcendent responses we elicit – come from within. I believe that the numinous is luminous: it lights the way ahead for us as we seek to improve ourselves and our world.
© 2021 Geoff Allshorn