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The importance of looking up - awe, wonder, and the modern teen


Last Friday, we in Maine, and many, many others around the world were treated to a spectacular, and rare, night sky event. The Aurora Borealis (or Aurora Australis for our…more southerly…friends of camp) was vivid and stunning. The breadth of the display, from horizon to horizon here in Maine, the variety of colors, and the brightness were the definition of awe-inspiring.

I hope, at some point, to have a similar event happen during the summer. That would be so cool.

But every summer, even without auroras, we share moments of collective awe and wonder at camp. I’ve been lucky enough over my summers to have been present when a camper witnessed their first shooting star. I’ve watched countless full moon rises over the lake, pointed out the international space station, and been lucky enough to watch Mars, outrageously big and bright in the dark Maine sky, rise like a second, red, moon over Stanley Pond with a group of Cottage campers. We’ve gazed at the Milky Way as campers converse quietly and contemplate the same questions as generations of kids before, sometimes reverentially, sometimes comedically. We’ve seen vivid rainbows erupt after a summer storm, pointing to a treasure that is oh so close at hand.

These experiences are timeless (well, maybe with the exception of the ISS), and yet seem almost entirely novel to a large percentage of campers. The reasons why many of them have never seen a shooting star, or realized the scope of the Milky Way, are obvious and distressing. While light pollution is a big factor, a bigger one is the loss of opportunities to be outdoors, at night, away from screens.

There is a cost to this lost opportunity. Beyond the prosaic – “there is the rising moon, therefore there is east”, or “it just rained, and the angle of the sun is low, therefore if I stand with the sun to my back, I will see a rainbow” – there is a mental and social health effect from moments of awe.

It seems that awe, or wonder as it’s also referred to, has a couple of profound impacts. The first is that awe can help quiet negative thinking. Rumination, negative thinking, or negative self-talk can have negative impacts on mood and lead to anxiety and depression. Awe interrupts, or turns down the intensity on these “trains of thought”. Awe, it seems, leads to a sense of calm.

Natural, shared moments of awe, like the recent aurora, or the sight of a shooting star on the clear Maine night, have another positive effect. Because they are shared, they create a moment of commonality. In that moment, you know exactly what another person experienced, and even better, how they felt.

It feels, in 2024, like we need both of these effects more than ever before. Surveys reveal that depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders that are often associated with rumination are at unprecedented levels, especially among teens. Shared experiences are increasingly rare, as algorithmically driven apps curate individual cultures for individuals, and as the attention economy and the loss of a play-based childhood fragment everyone down into a simple marketing opportunity. Having an authentic moment of “did you see that?”, especially one that required some waiting or work, and that could not be experienced via a screen, is invaluable.

The good news is that researchers who have studied awe believe that one can practice feeling awe, and can certainly stack the deck in favor of experiences that might lead to it. We would never call it that at camp – we’re just star gazing. But secretly, we’re hoping for that moment, that sudden streak of color from overhead to the horizon. Because we know if we can create an opportunity for a camper to experience that feeling of awe, they will relish it. And seek it out again. And hopefully learn, that with a little planning, and a little luck, and some patience, a moon rise over a perfectly still lake, a vibrant rainbow against a backdrop of storm clouds, or if you’re really lucky, an aurora is just a matter of waiting and watching.

We’re looking forward to many moments of awe and wonder at MTC this summer. We look forward to sharing them with your camper, because the only thing better than a sense of wonder, a moment of awe, is when it is shared with someone else.

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