It’s interesting how a simple well-put phrase can open our understanding, become a key to unlock a room of thoughts and feelings we didn’t even know we had.
I hadn’t thought of Americans Who Tell the Truth as being in the awe business. Definitely inspiration, but not awe. Then Betty Burkes sent me a link to Krista Tippett’s interview with Dacher Keltner.
Keltner is a scientist at U.C. Berkeley who has been studying the science of awe, its beneficial mental, physiological and communal effects. I had generally categorized awe as a feeling we get in the presence of something visually or emotionally so huge it knocks our socks off – first looking into the Grand Canyon, first hearing Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, or some really thrilling rap, first falling in love, first seeing a portrait by Rembrandt, witnessing a birth – any birth! These are definitely cause for awe as looking deeply at nearly anything can be. But Keltner says, “The first wonder [awe] of life is Moral Beauty.” Moral beauty, what’s that? Kindness. Courage. Love. Insistence on justice. Compassion. Integrity. Perseverance. Altruism. Camaraderie. Keltner says that the first experience many of us have with awe is in experiencing these virtues in action, people caring for and being good to each other. And it’s that awe which inspires us to be more generous as neighbors, better friends, braver, more engaged citizens, and more empathetic towards those we have previously dehumanized and disregarded.
Hearing about that “first wonder” got me thinking about how I explain the reason for painting the portraits, how I frame it. I usually say, which is true, that I was filled with immense anger and grief as my government was lying, in 2001 through 2003, to the American people about the necessity of making war on the country of Iraq. A preemptive war. A crime against humanity. The anger and grief were making me sick at heart, quite literally, as I agonized for all the potential human victims, non-human victims, and terrible sundering of the fabric of democracy when a government lies to its citizens, turns them into murderers. Perhaps I experienced a negative awe, overwhelmed by immense depravity. I felt totally alienated from this country but wanted to find some way to still feel at home. So, I determined to stop ranting about the political leaders (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, etc.) who were lying, and surround myself with portraits of Americans who make me feel good about this country, people who have insisted throughout our history that we live by our stated ideals.
And when I heard Dacher Keltner say, “The first wonder of life is moral beauty,” I realized I was missing a key part of my motivation. When Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on the Montgomery bus, we felt the moral beauty of her quiet civil disobedience. When a weak and dying Rachel Carson refused to back down from her denunciation of chemical companies’ pesticides, we witnessed her moral beauty. When Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole at the state capitol in Colombia, South Carolina, bringing down the Confederate flag, we were stunned by moral beauty. When Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years to protect the land in southern Utah from fossil fuel development, we were awed by moral beauty.
When George W. Bush & Company lied to create a war of imperialism, we were appalled at their moral ugliness, their easy willingness to choose subterfuge and promote fear to enable destruction and murder for profit and power. They morally degraded not just themselves but all citizens of this country. I felt as though I were being spattered in the indelible mud of shame and guilt. Our “leaders” were not inspiring us with the awe of their principled courage but willing us to follow them by means of their repulsive and manipulative lying.
Whatever moral beauty I might previously have been able to lay claim to was violently stripped away by this war of choice. I wanted it back. I wanted to live in a country whose founding ideals of moral beauty were more than propaganda. So, I asked myself, who are some of the people who refuse to be betrayed by racism, sexism, and financial exploitation? Paint their moral beauty. Restore awe in a place where awe has been shredded, where racist murder has been championed as noble, where loving your fellow human is defined as naive, where corrupt politics is described as democracy.
We all want to be inspired by moral beauty, want to feel that expansion of heart and soul, participate in that awe. We want to hold close those people who inspire us to make our actions synonymous with our ideals. Being true to these ideals does not make us an exceptional people. Humans are humans wherever they are. It makes us an honest people. The ideals are exceptional. Our attempt at adherence to their demands fills us with wonder. And if anything inspires hope, hope that our problems can be solved, it’s moral beauty.