Awe, Altruism, and Close Encounters

4 Sep

I think they’re actually standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Alabama in Mobile Bay, but in my heart they will always be at Devil’s Tower.

After an up-and-down first week back at work, followed by more ups and downs in my attempts at interior re-decorating, I slipped off to the movie theater Sunday. But the movie I chose won’t be up for any Oscars this year. It was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Stephen Spielberg classic, now back in theaters to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release in 1977 – when I was a 19-year-old absolutely enthralled by what I saw, heard, and felt unfolding in the theater.

Of course, I could never feel the same way now, I cautioned myself as I drove to the theater. For one thing, I’ve seen the film, or parts of it, on television dozens of times in the four decades since. For another, I’ve made the mistake of teaching film, and as anyone who has taught anything they love knows, that’s always a threat to ruin the entire damn genre. You can become so hyper-aware of aesthetic criteria, dramatic conceivability, filmic technique, and other haughty intellectual concerns, you’re about as likely to enter the experience with an open heart as an atheist at a tent revival.

To make matters worse, the showing began with a short documentary interviewing Spielberg, his younger current-day counterpart J.J. Abrams, and Denis Villeneuve, the director of the deeply intelligent Arrival – so deeply intelligent and profound, it’s practically Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind. But several things were pointed out that actually enhanced the viewing. One was that Spielberg, for all his tendencies to overdo emotional manipulation in some films, genuinely had yearned to make just the connection his characters do in the film – to the point of repeatedly driving out to the desert to study the clear night sky, hoping to see a UFO. But that yearning in the film – so optimistic and idealistic in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate – is juxtaposed with ordinary people leading ordinary lives, raising children in modest and cluttered homes, with all of the normal family tensions and conflicts – as J.J. Abrams points out, the reality of those households immediately resonated with the people sitting in the theater. We were all invited to follow the characters played by Richard Dreyfus and Melinda Dillon into not one, but a series of close encounters that had to disrupt their lives before transforming them.

Such is the soundness of Spielberg’s psychological progression, I found I was still able to override the cognitive dissonance of the dozen or so times things happen that make no damn sense. Such quibbles, after all, are beside the point. I found myself moved almost to tears, even as I was the first time, sitting with my friend Joyce – who, after drying her eyes, said that Richard Dreyfus’s boarding of the alien spaceship made her “want to go with him.”

How can four decades of well-earned curmudgeon-hood be wiped away so easily? I pondered this afterward, while getting in a quick power walk on a paved hike-bike path next to the intersection of three highways.

The first thing that came to mind was a blog I had read only two days earlier. Friend and author Sarah Cavanagh, whose own research centers on positive psychology, had suggested that my essay about hiking in the Utah desert would be enhanced by checking out the “awe research” done at Cal-Berkley by Michele Shiota and Dacher Keltner. That led me, eventually, to Keltner’s essay on awe and altruism in Slate.


Seeing as a child sees.

Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” He notes that the attempt to articulate is “at the center of the world’s great spiritual traditions” (as well as, I’ll go ahead and add, some great films, or even some so-so ones).

Nothing surprising there. But then he cited Berkley studies that suggest that when people are exposed to awe, they’re more likely to show altruistic tendencies. In one experiment, subjects were asked to complete the sentence, “I am ________”; those who did so while facing an awe-imposing replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton were more likely “to define their individual selves in collectivist terms.” In another experiment, subjects asked to face a grove of Eucalyptus trees – the tallest in North America – were more likely to help a passerby who dropped his or her pens.

The implication?

In Keltner’s words, it’s this: “… being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.”


As I walked, I wondered if the causal relationship works in reverse. Can our acts of kindness lead to connections that produce awe, that affirmation of being part of something larger you must respect? I don’t know the answer. But on my post-film stroll, I saw something for the first time. Forty years later, one of Close Encounters’ most defining traits – one that separates it from any other cinematic human-alien encounter before or sense – is the movie’s complete lack of physical violence. It’s an amazing trait for a film with plenty of wide-open chase scenes, conflicts, and visual spectacle. But there’s not a gunshot, not a stab, not a punch. (Sure, the aliens have this habit of borrowing one’s children without permission, but, hey, they have the manners to return them.) The only living things to come to a violent end are the shrubbery.

Not a soul in the film – even the mysterious network of scientists and military men who are often the villains in these stories – expresses any desire to presume some malicious attention, to pre-emptively attack those they don’t understand. Instead, they long to understand, and to be understood – and as a result they emerge with a different perception of their place in the universe. In the hate-ridden and violence-torn times in which we live, in so many ways mired in dichotomies that disrespect the deeper possibilities of connection, perhaps what we could all use are a few more Close Encounters with those different from ourselves – and more shared experiences of awe and altruism are good places to start.

And it doesn’t take a flying saucer to get you there. Amidst my power-walk reveries, two deer bounded onto my path, then disappeared into the foliage. I followed them through the rain-soaked brush, grass and reeds, fumbling after the deer with my iPhone camera at the ready, craving another dose of awe.

These days, we need all we can get.

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