The death of Awesome

I was sitting in a share-auto in Chennai (a delightful concept to the Bangalorean who has had one argument too many with auto-drivers who can sometimes change their mind mid-journey – “Make it meter mele 20, madam”!!), when I noticed a billboard proudly yelling as it asked for all my attention. Now, being in India, it isn’t rare to see pictures of a batsman hitting away at a ball that seemed to have provoked his dark side. So, coming to the point, written on this larger-than-necessary-for-a-highway billboard were the words ‘IPL – It’s awesome’.

Now, no offence to all cricket-lovers (I know better than to offend 1 billion and more people), but this just made me think. Awesome? Is it, really? Well, probably yes, for some people, but let me tell you why that makes me cringe.

A few years ago, or maybe more than a few years ago….I remember my brief encounters with the word awesome. One of the earliest was when we sang the hymn – “How great Thou art” in church.

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Written in 1886, this hymn goes on to describe beautifully the wonders of nature and creation.
And when I heard it, it was etched in my mind that this word awesome was to be used for things that take your breath away, that are worthy of awe. The Grand Canyon. The Taj Mahal. The mighty sea, or a waterfall that makes you feel really small. The arresting voice of a singer. The way our body works.

Now, I do understand we don’t live in 1886 anymore, but don’t we hear this word much too often these days? Is it that our wonder is now reserved for things immediate and temporary, or has the word lost its true meaning somewhere in its journey from written to spoken to easily uttered.

“I just forwarded that mail you wanted.”
“Awesome. Thanks!”

“My new pair of shoes are so awesome!”

“This joke I heard was just awesome!”

I’m pretty sure that poor ‘awesome’ is not the only word bearing the brunt of losing what she started out meaning, and I’m not so sure she will find her true identity again. But for knowing her as I did, in a hymn and in nature and in moments of pure wonder…I think she deserves a moment of recognition and consideration.

[ Please note that dictionary.com is honest to break it to me that this weakened colloquial version of ‘awesome’ has been in vogue from the 1980s, though it doesn’t exactly tell me who is to blame!]

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Happy Absorption

I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like child stringing beads in kindergarten, – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. Brenda Ueland

Have you ever had that feeling of happy absorption? Quiet, content and deeply absorbed. Was it when you picked up a pen and wrote something, which you later found was poetry? Was it when you ran free in your school playground with no particular destination in mind? Was it something that woke you up at night, and you couldn’t rest till you had written it down/ sketched it out/ painted it/ created it or whatever else lifted up your spirit and wouldn’t let go till you let it come alive. What is it about that moment, this longing that nags you till you create and you willingly and most delightfully oblige.

There is something about that moment, when one, and only one thing is on your mind. Do these moments chance upon you, as and when they fancy, or could you learn to wait for this moment…teach yourself to receive them, like the same writer says again…

“I learned… that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.”

How can something beautiful not come out from these moments of passion and focus. Yes, some results of that moment may never see the light of day. Yes, some of them might find themselves thwarted by opinions of others. Some may find their way into other hearts.

But it would always have changed you, just a little more, because you listened to that urge.

The Dilemma of Prior Knowledge

Everything we see, our mind makes an attempt to immediately associate it with something we have already seen, something familiar. That is why, even though you know that the following picture does not explicitly depict a triangle, we see it, we perceive it – because we know what a triangle looks like. And it becomes very difficult not to see it, once we know of it’s existence.

So this means, we have a repository of images in our minds, and even without us knowing, we are sifting through them to find assoications for the things around us.
Considering this fact, it is to my advantage that I keep adding to this repository, so that I recognise patterns. As an artist or a designer, it means I can add interest to my work by playing on this psychology by subtly adding that element that is not obvious, but dependent on the user’s own repository.

But here’s the flipside. If my mind is trained to make associations in the blink of an eye, how do I ever get a fresh perspective. How do I NOT see what has been seen before?

While this principle speaks of visual perception, isn’t it true for our thought life, in general?

Once we have become comfortable with set thought patterns, it is all the more difficult to look at, think and see something new altogether.

And this is the reason why a child’s perspective is honest and untamed. Her repository has not yet been fully formed, she looks at something without making those associations.

So, to know or not to know. In this age of information overload, we probably don’t have a choice. But maybe we can exercise our minds to be flexible.

Think about that!