I fixed my eye on the kid up the road. He was my son, a recent high-school grad and competitive cyclist, and he was waiting for me with a big smile as I churned toward him on a mountain bike in North Carolina’s Pisgah Forest.
“Hey Mom, you got one more gear,” he said in surprise as I arrived. I looked down at my chain ring and saw he was right: I could have shifted into easier pedaling. But though the climb was steep I hadn’t felt I needed it–I’d been so focused on that smile of his, a magnet of encouragement.
We continued riding, side by side, but darn if the mountain wasn’t growing, rising up around every turn bigger and beastlier than before. Now I was absolutely in my easiest gear, but it wasn’t enough. I had to stop.
“C’mon, Mom!” my son called back to me, his grin a bright spot of light in the forest shade. “Drink some water, Mom! Get back on, Mom; you got this!”
Uh, really? I thought. But his perkiness and the sparkle in his eye moved me back onto the saddle. And when I started pedaling again I had that feeling from before, like I had one more gear–even though I didn’t. Somehow I felt I had a little reserve in the tank; I wasn’t yet running on empty. I had just enough to keep going.
Encouragement, inspiration, awe: These are all powerful forces. Curiously, they’re rarely studied by scientists and academics. They’re difficult to document with data points. But we know them when we feel them. They ease and lubricate our efforts, they get us through hard times. Any athlete or weekend 5K-er knows that cheering from the sidelines helps fire up the will. In any setting, joyfully given support (joyful is the operative word!) can offer a lift. And along with the wave of optimism blowing your way, you might feel a little awe at yourself, too. How’d I manage to motor on? That’s a pretty nice gift.
Awe can arise from a moment of human lovingkindness just as it can from nature, beauty or a religious context. An interesting New York University study –a rare one to address this topic–shows that experiencing awe can make us happier, less stressed, even more creative. To which I’ll add: especially when you stumble upon awe in a surprising place, like when a thigh-burning test in the woods is sweetened by a bright-eyed teen.
Those with the kindness and compassion to inspire awe are truly graceful. They transform a tough time into a moment of grace. They are that one more gear, which eases our efforts and gives us elegance when we least expect it.
Perhaps you’ve had an experience like this. Who’s your “one more gear”?