I have two questions for you.
Have you ever stressed over the most trivial of issues, that with the gift of hindsight have proven to be worth no time at all? Yeah, me too.
Now, have you ever looked out of a plane window and gotten an indescribable feeling – one with a tinge of uneasiness and (well paradoxically) a tinge of comfort?
And also are you asking yourself, what the hell do these two polar opposite questions have to do with each other? Well, what if I told you one could be a mindset or, if you will, a method to alleviate the other.
As human beings, all of us tend to fixate on issues that concern our momentary happiness. Although some issues may have the gravity to extend to our relatively far future, most of them pop in and out of our heads in the span of a day or two, but ironically, we spend most of our time ruminating on these minute issues. This phenomenon is supported by the “region-beta paradox,” where it was found that participants in an experiment were more likely to experience a variance in emotion when a small event occurred rather than a larger and more catastrophic event (Gilbert, Daniel). Whether it be receiving slightly disappointing news related to your academic or professional life or even getting left on read, these relatively inconsequential events take a toll on us but don’t be disheartened, as with everything, there is a solution.
The idea of the Sublime was originally propounded by Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman, and philosopher. The term “Sublime” is used colloquially nowadays in the context of describing the high-quality or beautiful nature of something, but in Burke’s mind, the Sublime is something that evokes a certain feeling in us: almost a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness. If you’re having trouble visualizing a ‘Sublime experience,’ visualize yourself, and you alone, standing on an old wooden ledge facing a storm of an indescribable magnitude which is tearing apart the usually serene landscape in front of you. This experience should register as an awful one to most of you (hopefully), but to Burke, these experiences are the most exhilarating and life-changing ones. He believed that these experiences specifically stimulate parts in the body responsible for your instinctive self-preservation, thus creating a slight sense of fear as well as an indescribable thrill. He went on to claim “The passion caused by the great and the Sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” The feeling of the Sublime additionally acts as a corrective, contextualizing the events and problems of our day by exposing and reminding us of the vastness of that around us and our impotence in comparison to it. Instead of ruminating on the trivial issues of our daily lives, once we process the Sublime, we will actually spend time considering the gravity of our actions and problems.
Contrary to Burke’s desires, most of us aren’t caught up in a life-altering storm daily, so how can we apply this concept to our daily lives?
Around us, in the hustle and bustle of our lives, we rarely get a chance to stop and observe what is happening around us. By simply looking up at the stars, going for a walk at night, or even taking a look out of the window, we allow ourselves to understand the true trivial nature of what we stress about. If we take a step back from our somewhat self-centered mindset and consider the vastness of the universe, our problems seem to fade away.
While looking at the bigger picture can help, it is important to judge this theory in the context of our lives right now. The Coronavirus has proved to be an unprecedented challenge, claiming tens of thousands of lives worldwide and right now seems to be one of the only things to stress about. In the face of this, our little problems seem to gradually fade away and we are left to ruminate on a worldwide pandemic. However, one thing we’ve learned from the Sublime is that contextualizing our problems minimizes them. The virus is undoubtedly a catastrophic problem, there is simply no doubt about that, nevertheless, it is imperative to understand that in the context of history, innumerable factors have jeopardized the existence of society and suffering is simply an inevitable aspect of our lives. However, the sublime also allows us to think about the insignificance of our time in the context of a universe that has taken 14 billion years to amass. Mankind has been through crisis’ far worse than this, so in the meantime, keep to yourself and try to finally spend time doing what makes you happy.
If you are interested in any further reading on the topic of the sublime, it would be my pleasure to direct you to Edmund Burke’s “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” or controversial German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.” Or if you’d rather watch a video on the Sublime, the School of Life is an inspiration and great resource to learn about philosophy.