Archive for Sunday, May 19, 2002

Columnist finds himself in ‘awe’

May 19, 2002


I pass a stranger on the steps of the library. Her smile is bright, her greeting warm. She looks me firmly in the eyes, and her bravery is irresistible. I involuntarily smile back and say hello.

I swing around to watch her walk away.

What was that? I think.

Three days later, same thing happens.

Both people were African Americans. Smiling across the racial divide made the act seem even braver.

I had this fantasy of people sitting in a living room, one of them saying, "This week, let's smile at strangers and see what happens. Show them that love isn't about receiving it's about sending. Then we'll get together and talk about what happened."

Just like you, everywhere I go, I see the glazed eyes and the faces behind barricades. In fact, mine's often one of them. As I look around, I sense the rage and sadness and loss of meaning and preoccupation that have sunk so deep into our bones that we hardly know they're there anymore.

But the two strangers made me bold, so I took to having moments with those I don't know. I started making stray remarks in the grocery line to the person next to me, hoping my volley would be returned. I rewrote the lines of the quick shop drama of Distracted Customer meets Bored Clerk.

Then I got scared. What would people think? Was I going over the edge?

I sent an e-mail to Rick Snyder, a Kansas University professor of psychology. He's just published a fat book called the "Handbook of Positive Psychology." What was happening seemed positive, so I figured Snyder might know what it was.

He wrote back, "What you describe is a bit like awe, where one is in sheer amazement of some act of nature or of a human being."

He had Oxford University Press send me his book.

First thing I read was a piece by a famous psychologist named Martin Seligman.

Somewhere in the last half of the 20th century, Seligman says, the field of psychology turned into victimology. It focused on diagnosing and treating broken people instead of researching ways to strengthen people before they break.

Seligman and Snyder are among the leaders of a movement called positive psychology, which emphasizes strength-building.

So the "Handbook" has chapters on gratitude, humor, spirituality, humility, wisdom, creativity, authenticity, compassion, social support, forgiveness and empathy, among others.

And not even one titled "Your Big Fat Father Wound" or "How You Destroyed Love for the Dillionth Time Way to Go, Fool."

In the index, I looked up the word Snyder had used, "awe." I was guided to this statement by a University of Virginia researcher named John Haidt: "It is a curious, beautiful and understudied fact about human nature that we can be deeply moved by the sight of a stranger doing a good deed for another stranger."

Check: The strangers' smiles were an awfully good deed.

When you witness such a deed, Haidt says, the emotion you feel is "elevation." You get a warm, open, pleasant feeling in the chest.


In turn, you become more loving or helpful to others.


The action that inspires a feeling of elevation is one of "moral beauty," Haidt says.

I realize that's what I saw in the unprompted smiles: moral beauty. The strangers had given a gift without expecting a return and in that moment, no longer seemed strange.

Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at Martin's e-mail address is

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