Living in the Absence of Awe


Miami. -- There is a telling scene in the riveting new Tom Hanks movie, "Apollo 13." In it, the astronauts, en route to the moon, beam a live broadcast back to Earth, but the networks refuse to carry it.

According to NASA, this actually happened. Sitcoms were deemed more important than the third mission to lunar soil.

Twenty-five years ago, it seems, we were at the beginning of the end of our capacity for amazement. From that day to this, the list of things that inspire reverence has declined precipitously. Once, the list included God, the flag and television.

Now, we live largely in the absence of awe. We expect miracles.

Consider: The other day, two space vehicles weighing a combined 223 tons, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, executed an almost flawless docking maneuver 245 miles above the Earth. The linking of the American space shuttle Atlantis and the Russian space station Mir was a milestone achievement with profound technical, social and political implications.

The national response? A collective shrug.

Things don't get to us the way they used to. Nobody says "ooh" or "ahh" anymore.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were among a crowd of tourists visiting the Lincoln Memorial. He gazed upon the slackers in their baggy jeans and the tourists giggling as they adjusted their cameras, and pronounced himself disgusted. This temple symbolizes the deepest divisions and highest ideals of the nation, and yet for these people, he groused, "it's just a pause between ice cream cones."

Go to the multiplex. See a tyrannosaurus thunder through "Jurassic Park," or John Kennedy shake hands with Forrest Gump, or a human being team up with a cartoon to find out who framed Roger Rabbit. Sure, we're entertained. We appreciate the technical genius necessary to pull off these impossibilities. But awed? Not really.

Awe suggests -- and requires -- an innocence we don't seem to have anymore.

Innocence can't flourish in the presence of information. And this is information's age. We have solved the mysteries, learned the secrets, mastered the jargon. We know not only how the awesome things were done, but also who was sleeping with whom at the time.

But progress, if that's what this is, has its price. That price, to judge by our response to the docking of Mir and Atlantis, is a rote joylessness. The marvelous becomes the mundane too quickly.

And so, we miss magic. If I know all about computer-generated imagery, how can I ever look at "Jurassic Park" with the same eyes? If I can deconstruct a Miles Davis solo on my PC, how can music ever affect me in the same way?

It can't. And though knowledge is an absolute good, that's a loss.

Once, we spoke of an event capturing one's imagination. Now, imagination's not only captured, it's tamed, domesticated and drinking from a water dish.

I've been trying to think of the last things that awed me. Outside of Toni Braxton's lips and a couple of Michael Jordan shots that refuted Newton, the only thing I can come up with is the birth of my daughter almost five years ago.

Seeing her poke through the aperture of life was like watching the first dawn with new eyes. Hearing her push her first breath out in a tiny, lusty squall was like hearing Miles whisper feathery promises out the golden bell of his horn.

My jaw went slack. My heart beat out a martial time. I knew how this had happened, but I didn't know how it had happened, if you follow me. She was a mystery. I was in awe.

Years later, awe is still something I experience largely through my children. They, of course, don't understand this. But if you're a parent, you probably do.

Watch them play as twilight gathers -- young enough to know the things we have forgotten, too young to have learned the things we'd as soon not know. They are the last of awe, and it's comforting to know to know we still have that capacity in us somewhere.

But man, I wish it were me. I watch them, and sometimes I can't help marveling silently in jealousy and in wonder:

Ooh. Ahh.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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