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Robert MacDonald

This summer I have been rummaging almost daily in my small garden, adding new elements, taking some away and tidying and tending others. I have a vision of the garden I want it to eventually be, and I’ve spent almost five years working toward it, knowing full well that it will never be finished.

My humble garden is an urbanized homage to the variegated and breathtaking cottage gardens that I encountered on occasion during the days and weeks accumulated over a dozen youthful years of holidays, retreats and escapes walking the coast path that rings England.

I learned that many of these cottage gardens had as much to do with bees and chickens and vegetables as with wisteria and foxgloves. In the 18th century cottagers with reduced land access (as a result of the destructive enclosure laws) were encouraged to use cottage gardens to feed their families. The ornamental elements owed much to the kitchen garden of the Elizabethan dooryard and the herbs that lived in it. At first medicinal and other functional herbs predominated but they too had ornamental value, and it was hard to tell if the tall spires of hollyhock were central because of their medicinal or ornamental utility.

Every time I came across one, I would stand in awe of the practical and aesthetic beauty of these gardens, awed by the combinations of form and colour and shade, awed by the attention to detail and the obvious toil that was involved, and most of all awed by the inspiration of those gardeners.

I found peace and knowledge in those long walks over the hills, dales and shingle shores of England, and I discovered a purpose for my life. I also, and more importantly, discovered that I was capable of experiencing deep and abiding spiritual emotions, that would give shape and context to my journey through life.


In the years since I have often wondered why we humans experience awe, and whether it’s unique to our species. Is awe the ultimate collective emotion, that motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good? Through the many activities that give us that goose bumpy sensation that we associate with awe – artistic creation, collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, communing with nature, religious gatherings and worship – awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the species to which we belong.

Robert MacDonaldRobert MacDonaldAwe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities. People who experience awe, more so than those experiencing emotions like pride or amusement, cooperate more, share more resources and sacrifice more for others – all of which are behaviours necessary for our collective life.

Awe seems to imbue us with a different sense of ourselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger. Even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.


We could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favour of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events – live music, theatre, museums and galleries – has dropped over the years.

This goes for children, too: Arts and music programs in schools are being dismantled in lieu of programs better suited to standardized testing; time outdoors and for novel, unbounded exploration are sacrificed for résumé-building activities.

Awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. The days of mutual aid, of working together for common good, may be coming to an end.

To reverse this trend, we all need to experience more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives us goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others – the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds, the selfless caregiver. All of us will be better off for it.


Anyone who’s ever spent a hung-over Sunday half asleep channel surfing knows how many people are out there selling us happiness: sermons from an assortment of religious clerics and motivational speakers, smile-filled ads for anti-depressants whose scientific names no one can pronounce, and a far fetched, twenty dollar bottle of miracle water capable of curing our depression and facilitating divine deposits into our back account. The message we hear is this: we are sad and it’s not okay. It’s a kind of weakness – admittance to the world that we are somehow unfit. In the same way we cover-up our fatness, baldness, or bad skin, we cover-up our sadness, like it is something deserving shame.

Photos, for example, once functioned to capture the poignant moments of our past. Their purpose is now more sinister: to document our happiness, not for its own sake, but as proof of our social fitness. A frown in a photo is a blemish like a thumb on a lens, closed eyes, or an exposed nipple.

The reason for this attitude towards sadness is more philosophical and less institutional than what I just wrote might imply. The western world was founded on humanist concepts that embrace the greatness of the individual and advocate individual freedom and, consequently, responsibility. With this attitude in hand, you are expected to create for yourself what you want. Therefore if you are sad, it is an inherent flaw in your character – a personality trait only you are responsible for. Well isn’t that a great burden to carry? That kind of attitude, that sadness is weakness, is inherently self-perpetuating. But sadness is not a personality trait, really. It’s nowhere in any contemporary taxonomy of personality traits.

Sadness is an emotion we all feel, agnostic to any conception of right or wrong, strong or weak. It is a necessary precondition to happiness. Life being fundamentally dualistic, there is no happiness without sadness, in the same way there is no object without space, no light without dark; but also physiologically true in the way our body regulates the chemicals of happiness through hedonic adaptation. Often conceptualized as a treadmill, since one must continually work to maintain a certain level of happiness, hedonic adaptation involves cognitive changes, such as shifting values, goals, attention and interpretation of a situation.

In this way, sadness is a fundamental and natural part of the human experience. But we continue to feel it’s something shameful and aberrant, like a twelve year old religious boy is meant to feel about masturbation. It’s ironic that when we’re experiencing a bout of mania, what we think are our most clearheaded thoughts would not conventionally be considered happy, rather they are objectively both our grimmest and most optimistic ideas, like what I write now.


Maya Angelou said we find our path by walking it. And at the end of the day, for all the advice we get from anyone; from all the books we read about how to live a good life, our best life; from all the self-help seminars that we go to; from all the programs that we watch, at the end of the day, with all this information coming at us, we only find our path by walking it. We have to commit ourselves to being courageous, being committed, being consistent to those immutable principles by which we have decided we are going to live our life. There is no other way around this. We have to walk our path to find it.

Alas, we live in a world and a time where everybody is looking for a shortcut. Everybody wants the shortcut to success, the shortcut to this, the shortcut to that. In our cars we use apps to find the shortest way to get to where we’re going. Everybody in life these days it seems is trying to find a shortcut to wherever they think they’re trying to go. And often when we shortcut our way to getting there, we’re not happy when we arrive.

Robert MacDonaldRobert MacDonaldPerhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that chasing it is such a fool’s errand, is that happiness isn’t a goal in itself but is only an aftereffect. It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to – consciously, fully engaged in the business of living. In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomena familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the "real" stars, those cataclysms taking place in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.


Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what we don’t know and figuring out a way to handle our ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

The people we think are wise have, to some degree, overcome the biases and overconfident tendencies that are infused in our nature. In its most complete meaning, intellectual humility is accurate self-awareness from a distance. It is moving over the course of one’s life from the adolescent’s close-up view of oneself, in which we fill the whole canvas, to a landscape view in which we see, from a wider perspective, our strengths and weaknesses, our connections and dependencies, and the role we play in a larger story.

There’s no alternative to doing the work. We have to do the work. And doing the work means that we have to walk the walk; we have to walk the path if we’re going to find and discover what our life is truly all about. And quite frankly, the joy is in the walk anyway. The joy is in the journey. There is joy in the journey. There are ups and there are downs, but there is joy in the journey. We may live in a society where we are so caught up with achieving milestones that we end up missing the moments. Milestones are a beautiful and awesome thing, but it’s these moments that are really awesome, and really make life worth living.

It’s raining outside as I write this, and my garden is soaking the moisture up like a sponge. The peas and tarragon, the roses and the mums, the apple trees and raspberry vines, the sage, strawberries, lilacs, hostas, radishes and tomatoes are huddled in horticultural and agricultural bliss, as am I. Standing among the plants and bushes and trees, soaked to the skin, a trowel in one hand and a clump of tender shoots I grew from seed in the other, I am filled with the peace of knowing that my long journey from the rolling pathways of my youth have come full circle, and I am home.

Robert MacDonald

A typographer by trade, the professional career of Robert MacDonald has spanned a broad range of activities: publisher, producer, director, contributor, creator, mentor and information outfitter. He has substantial practical, hands-on experience in graphic and typographic design for print and interactive media, editorial development, advertising creative, copywriting, consumer and professional marketing, and business development. Robert has won writing and design awards for print and digital media products he has initiated or produced for clients. He has resided in Toronto, New York, San Francisco, Banff, Bear River NS, Vancouver and currently in Kelowna.

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