Friday, January 13, 2017

How Awesome Is a Child's Perspective?

My wife and I welcomed our second boy into the world last week. It was, and is, a truly awesome experience. Since Peter's birth, I've been thinking a little about an essay I submitted for publication about our first son during the fall. The piece was rejected Mutombo-style, but I'd still like to share it here. Anyways, the message still holds true: a little bit of wonder and awe goes a long way in this world. I hope you like it.

"Oh, Wow!": An Ode to the Truly Awesome

My grandfather hated the word “awesome.” I could never definitively figure out why, but I suspect it had something to do with a get-off-my-lawn attitude sometimes adopted by old guys. He'd often playfully mock us when we imitated the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and called something “awesome.”

As a World War II veteran and a longtime New York City trial lawyer, Grandpa probably wasn't very easily awed by the time he hit his seventies. In addition, as a connoisseur of the English language who usually dominated the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, Gramps surely knew that there was a plethora of adjectives to substitute for the loathsome "awesome." Looking back, he was probably right: most of the phenomena that we kids defined as “awesome” didn’t actually deserve our awe. After all, nobody was really in awe of me when I popped a wheelie on my bike that one time. Why did I feel the need to call it awesome?

Grandpa died four years ago, but I’ve been thinking of his aversion to that word a lot recently. I’ve seen many writers – perhaps because Millennials have inundated the Internet – use the phrase “literally awesome” as a descriptor. According to various sources on the Web, the Perseid meteor shower, gymnast Simone Biles, and the show The Night Of are all “literally awesome.” And the music of Prince and David Bowie were described the same way in obituaries for those men. Grandpa would point out that the expression is uncreative, annoying, and overused. Still, it’s a pretty apt way to describe amazing phenomena.

I’m also reminded of my grandfather whenever my young son utters his new favorite multi-syllabic phrase. Sean, who’s just over a year old, has learned how to exclaim “Oh, wow!” My wife and I still aren’t sure where he discovered it, but one day as we brought him downstairs from his room, Sean uttered the expression that would quickly become his motto. Since then, he’s found something to “Oh, wow!” about around practically every corner. A daily commuter train passes as we drive on the highway? “Oh, wow!” He sees a flower that he wants to touch? “Oh, wow!” A dog, any dog? “Oh, wow!”  

To recap, my son finds trains, flowers, and dogs to be among the most awesome things he could even imagine. Those of us who attended Catholic school or CCD know all about the Holy Spirit’s gift of Wonder and Awe, and my son has oodles of it. Isn’t that a terrific way to live?

In his now-famous 1993 speech, as he was dying of cancer, basketball coach Jim Valvano memorably encouraged listeners to laugh, think, and cry every day. If you do all of those, Valvano explained, “that’s a heck of a day.” Valvano spoke with a verve that belied his sickness and inspired countless people to alter their perspective of the world around them.

Well, please allow me to humbly suggest a fourth activity to add to Valvano’s idea of a full day: say-- and mean – “Oh, wow!” More than that, allow yourself to be awed by the world around you.

Let Sean have his trains, flowers, and dogs. As for the rest of us: Steel ships floating on the water? Oh, wow! The leaves are changing? Or the snow is falling? Or the sun is shining? Or the rain is pouring? Oh, wow! Your little kid just expressed an actual, real emotion? Oh, wow!

The comedian Louis CK frequently makes fun of everything we take for granted nowadays. To the man who complains about the poor Wi-Fi on an airplane, the comedian retorts, “You’re flying through the air on a chair!” Any time I get jaded with the world, I think about that joke. Or I allow myself to be awed by the fact that there are millions of living things moving around on top of my hand. A little world on my freakin' thumbnail! Oh, wow!

Granted, it’s sometimes more natural to feel disgusted instead of awed. The past year was a difficult and divisive one in our country and the world at large. By the time you’re reading this, the United States will have staged a contentious election that figured to get ugly before it ended. Still, even that event provided reasons to feel awed, if you looked hard enough. After all, hundreds of millions of people will have exercised their right to vote in the beautiful -- albeit highly flawed -- democratic experiment that is our nation. That’s still pretty awesome.
While my Grandpa might have hated the word awesome, I’m fairly confident that he didn’t hate the feeling. Several generations after he experienced the thrill of his own youth, his great-grandson is allowing himself to be amazed by the world each and every day. I hope Sean – and each of us -- never stops saying “Oh, wow!”

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Follow Francis Tolan on Twitter @frantweet

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