An Awesome Fear
Exploring that liminal space between fear and awe.
“The difference between fear and awe is a matter of our eyes adjusting.”
- Terry Tempest Williams
There exists a delicate threshold that distinguishes fear from awe. It is a veil that flutters. A liminal point.
There is the ‘awesome.’ There is also the ‘awful.’ And in between, there are experiences that teeter on the edge of trepidation and an enigmatic wonder. The simultaneous rush of ‘this is incredible’ and ‘this is incredibly terrifying’ alchemizes into an emotion that feels like a paradox unto itself.
I recall someone sharing a moment of awe of this flavor. A mother hiking on the cusp of a steep cliff on the side of a mountain with her two children. An impeccable view coupled with - not quite fear- but a sense of helplessness in protecting her young ones from gravity and Mother Nature’s precipitous ridges. When she told this story, it was in the context of sharing moments of awe - though hers felt slightly different from the others. It wasn’t filled with immediate inspiration. It was filled with contemplative reverence for the natural world and how helpless we are in the midst of these forces.
When I contemplate the power of awe, I realize how much I was hoping that awe could be a gateway to approach our climate movement differently. An alternative to fear-based strategies. A redirection of energy from the faith in our collective doomsday, to a faith in our collective ability to experience awe.
But awe is also fear.
When we look beyond the English language, ‘awe’ is much more nuanced and captured by both positive and negative emotions. In Italian, awe translates to ‘timore reverenziale’ or ‘reverential fear’. In Mandarin, 敬畏.
The first character 敬 = respectfully. The second 畏 = fear.
So maybe I’ve got this whole thing wrong. Awe, especially in the context of our climate crisis, is not an alternative to fear. It is a different breed of fear, one that still has the potential to invite us to look at our reality on this planet differently.
That liminal space between fear and awe holds a magic that can magnetically pull us towards a renewed sense of connection to our planet.
Threat Based Awe - An invitation
The cocktail of emotions of fear and awe is called Threat Based Awe. Though there is yet to be much research on this species of ‘awe’, it’s clear that this emotion can be felt in just as many places as we can find the ‘positive’ kind. In nature, social interactions, political or religious events. Findings from a brilliant study on Threat Based Awe in the USA concluded that between 12%–24% of awe experiences recounted were, in fact, Threat Based.
“The evidence reported here suggests that threat-based awe is more aptly characterized as a variant of awe than a variant of fear because reports of fear were always significantly lower than awe, which was the highest reported emotion.”
It’s still awe. So what really makes it different?
The study measured heart rate and other factors - but what seems to be most prominent about the results is that the feeling of Threat Based Awe is typically coupled with a feeling of powerlessness.
In April, the city of Montreal was hit by an ice storm, the worst we had seen in over 25 years. In one night, freezing rain blanketed every tree, bicycle, bench and street sign with an inch of ice. Over a million homes without power. It was frightening. It also looked like the most beautiful landscape of shimmering diamonds that had embellished absolutely everything. Over 900 trees died in one day from the sheer weight of the ice bending them, as though bowing down to the earth. It was heartbreakingly beautiful.
It plunged many of us into a state of collective contemplation.
“Will this happen again next year?”
“Is this the new normal?”
“Without cell phone towers and power lines, our species is totally powerless. How do we become more resilient?”
I was lucky. Falling trees had not shattered my apartment windows. I was able to find warmth. I honestly felt grateful for a few days off-grid without cell service. If I had experienced pure traumatizing fear, I doubt that I would have been as open to reflecting, discussing and contemplating so soon after.
But to some of us, this Threat Based Awe invited us to reflect together on this powerlessness. A reminder of how intimate the climate crisis will increasingly become.
From Awe to ‘Aha’ moments
Though the ice storm may have been a reminder for me, it may have been the starting place for someone else. A seed planted. An experience that eventually becomes the origin story for a life or career or project dedicated to restoring balance on this planet. An ‘aha’ moment.
It doesn't take much time to establish a link between individuals in the climate movement and the intriguing genesis of "Threat Based Awe." For example, this connection is noticeable in the climate-tech industry, where numerous companies are dedicated to addressing the escalating global wildfire crisis. Notably, many of the founders of these Silicon Valley-based companies share a common thread: their origin stories can be traced back to the critical period between 2017 and 2020, when California witnessed its most devastating forest fires in history.
Australian founder Tim Barat developed a wildfire protection technology called Gridware. His origin story dates back to the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires - the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history.
I haven’t spoken to Barat, but I do wonder whether the momentary sense of powerlessness from his wildfire experience catalyzed him into action in the long term. Unlike pure fear, can Threat Based Awe leave us inspired?
My suspicion is that it can.
Barat’s company Gridware is one of several portfolio companies at Convective Capital, a venture capital firm specifically focused on wildfires. The VC firm was co-founded by Bill Clerico who started truly paying attention to wildfires in 2019 when Clerico and his family were traveling by car to their home in San Francisco and learned that wildfires threatened to block their route.
“It wasn't like we were fleeing for our lives or anything like that. But it was still a very sort of personal, disruptive, scary experience.” said Clerico.
Did he experience awe? It’s hard to say. But ‘disruptive’ is a great way to describe the fact that sometimes, even moments of awe that may leave us momentarily powerless can ultimately rearrange our path forward, influencing what steps we take, what we build or even invest in.
A spectrum of awe
As much of Canada is currently ravaged by widespread wildfires, this particular example hits close to home, making it essential to acknowledge that awe alone is far from sufficient. The situation is deeply unsettling, with hundreds of thousands of people, particularly First Nations communities, being forced to evacuate their homes. It feels disconcerting to discuss awe in the context of fear, especially when I am physically distant from the fires and their immediate impacts.
To be fully transparent, I used to firmly believe that awe could serve as the alternative I sought—an antidote to fear as the predominant element in our climate discourse. However, in hindsight, I realize the oversimplification of my thinking. Of course, as with most things in life, there is nuance.
If awe is a spectrum peppered with ambiguity, I’m still convinced that it harbors space for new growth, new language, new starting places for our connection to climate work of all kinds.
Have you experienced Threat Based Awe before? Tell me about it in the comment section below.
With kindness and curiosity,
Speaking of ‘Aha’ moments and climate action… Back in 1990, the lead singer of the popular 1980s band A-ha and the leader of the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona embarked on an unconventional journey.
They hopped into a converted electric Fiat Panda they had recently imported and began a road trip. Their mission? To challenge Oslo's exorbitant road tolls, engaging in acts of parking illegally and disregarding penalty notices they received. Eventually, their car was confiscated by authorities and sold at an auction to settle the fines. Their audacious feat garnered significant media coverage and effectively conveyed their message. Electric vehicles were later granted exemptions from road tolls, forming part of a comprehensive set of incentives that contributed to Norway's remarkable achievement of having the world's highest per capita electric vehicle ownership.
Cheers to ‘Aha’ moments!
Gordon, A. M., Stellar, J. E., Anderson, C. L., McNeil, G. D., Loew, D., & Keltner, D. (2016, December 8). The Dark Side of the Sublime: Distinguishing a Threat-Based Variant of Awe. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000120