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Awe and Admiration

September 23, 2021 18 min read
By Dr. Sabrina Little Philosophy Instructor, Morehead State University
Rev. Craig Vasek Specialist for the National Eucharist Revival, Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
A woman running into the mountains

Sabrina Little, PhD, a philosophy instructor at Morehead State University in Kentucky, joined Father Craig Vasek, Athletics Chaplain of the University of Mary, to discuss her insights into awe, admiration, and motivation.

Fr. Craig Vasek (FVasek): The first thing I want to know is how you got into ultramarathons. I can’t imagine running two miles at this point in my life, but even in my prime I would never have thought to run over five miles! Could you walk us through what you do, both as a scholar and as an athlete?

Sabrina Little (SL): I’m both a philosopher and a professional runner. I am an ultramarathoner, so I run competitively anywhere from 50 kilometers upwards. My specialty in the past has been the 100-miler. I really love that event. I got into the sport in a strange way. I was running on the cross-country team at the College of William and Mary, but I ran my first 100-miler the summer after my freshman year. My mom was in remission from cancer at the time, and I wanted to do a fundraiser for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. So I ran 100 miles as a fundraiser for that cause. My run ended up in the newspaper, and I was contacted not long after and informed that my time was one of the fastest 100-mile times in the country that year. That’s how I learned that this was actually a sport and that other people were doing it! From there I started to seek out the community and to seek out race opportunities. I’ve been competing in ultramarathons ever since.

FVasek: So you’ve always been running, but discovered ultramarathons as an adult – and through a personal desire to raise awareness and support for a good cause. What sort of distances were you running before that point?

SL: My event before that was the 3-kilometer run. So I went from running 3 kilometers to 100-milers, which is not something I would typically recommend!

FVasek: I read that you’ve run a 24-hour race. How far can a person run in 24 hours? Do you run for 24 hours without stopping, all through the day and all through the night?

SL: Yes, I’ve completed multiple 24-hour races. I held the American record in that event for a while, and I placed second in the world at one point. It used to be my favorite event, but now due to family and work responsibilities, it’s harder to train for. So I’ve been sticking to more modest events, like 50 miles, 100 kilometers, and 100 miles.

My personal best in a 24-hour race is just over 152 miles, so a person can get pretty far. If you really want to compete you have to run the whole time. Any stopping point is taking away from mileage you could be getting. There are a lot of people who casually participate in these events and are free to do whatever they want: they have snacks, sit around for breaks, and talk with each other. But if you want to be competitive, you have to minimize all stops.

FVasek: It’s amazing to even think about running those distances. And that serves as a great transition into the topic I wanted to discuss with you today, which is admiration. You’ve studied and thought a lot about that topic as a philosopher, and it seems to be something that comes up a lot in the world of sport. How did you first come to want to study admiration?

SL: My interest in admiration came about through my teaching and coaching at a small classical school just prior to starting my PhD. The classical tradition hearkens back to Plato and Aristotle and offers a method of education designed to develop students into well-formed, well-governed citizens. There was a push at this classical school to incorporate character education into the athletic program, and as the head cross-country coach I started to ask myself the question of how I could use our excellent seniors to motivate the younger students. I really wanted to give a platform to the older students who were doing great things, had great character, and worked hard. I wanted them to set the culture of the team. In providing these students a platform, a culture of good character formed, because the younger students emulated the actions of the older ones. Admiration is a strong motivating emotion. It picks out the qualities that make another person good and inclines us to try them on for ourselves.

Another feature of classical tradition is a method of using experts or masters in order to teach competence in different disciplines. So how, for instance, how do you become a good writer? Well, you’re first exposed to great poems and great stories, and then you practice writing with the conventions of those poems and stories, imbibing what is excellent in the work of the masters and practicing it these excellences yourself. You take on for yourself the qualities that make the masters great.

I started to ask myself how we could take that same sort of structure and use it to assist students in moral development. What is the equivalent in the moral domain of teaching students to write by exposing them to great literature? So I started looking into imitation, emulation, and the other-praising emotions (like awe and respect), and I arrived at the admiration literature.

FVasek: A lot of your answer there involved discussing the virtues and the emotions side-by-side. Could you say a bit more about their relationship? Do we simply bring emotions to bear on virtuous traits? Can emotions be virtuous themselves?

SL: Those are great questions. There’s obviously variation in how different philosophers speak. But Aristotle, for instance, speaks of the virtuous life in terms of having well-ordered emotions. The virtuous person desires the right things in the right way. Let’s take anger, for example: being virtuous with respect to anger means being mad in the right ways to an appropriate extent and at the right objects. Some things are worthy of anger. If there is an injustice, anger is there to help recognize what the injustice is. And so part of training in virtue is having these well-ordered emotions in place so that your immediate responses to the world are good responses. People tend to think of virtue as being wholly rational and exclusive of emotion, but that’s not how the classical tradition that arose from Plato and Aristotle saw it.

In fact, Plato and Aristotle thought that one’s education should start with poetry and gymnastics. They would start with poems and hero stories as well as play and physical training, all in order to properly train students’ emotions so that they would become teachable in the classroom. You can teach students whatever you want, but if they don’t love the right things it will always be an uphill battle. Being able to love the right things and have the right sorts of emotions in place is so foundational to a person’s education.

FVasek: I think of our scholar-athletes and all young people. They are incredibly emotional, and that’s not a negative thing! They are incredibly emotional, and we want to guide them to the good. But the good isn’t always emotional, or it’s not always the thing that grabs the emotions most immediately or most intensely. I think that’s why I tend to think of virtue more in terms of discipline than anything else. Self-denial and the virtue of temperance are coming to mind here.

We want to help young people strive for the good, so we want to propose the right things for them to desire in the right way. Sometimes admiration can motivate people to do good things, but it can also have the opposite effect.

SL: Temperance is a good example because it’s all about taking the right amount of pleasure. On one side is the vice of taking too much pleasure, but on the other side is also a vice of not taking enough pleasure. So the flourishing life balances the two extremes. I guess pedagogically if you’re training or teaching someone to be more temperate, for instance, they’re going to incline one way or the other and need help finding the mean. Aristotle describes it this way: we’re all like warped boards, with some of us being warped in one direction and some being warped in the other. In order to fix the board, you have to pull it in the opposite direction. In terms of virtue and vice, that sort of guidance helps people to hit the mean. So if someone is taking too much pleasure, directing them to abstain in certain ways corrects their course and vice versa.

You also pointed out that the youth are very emotional – that’s so true! It’s especially true in the athletic context. Oftentimes athletes tend to be a bit fiery. The Greek word for it is thumos, which means “spirited.” Young athletes want to win: they want to hit someone, or however you want to say it. The problem is that when your emotions go rogue or are too outsized for the occasion, they make you less reason-responsive. So you’re not able to use your reason because you lack self-governance in your emotional life. You have to bring that spiritedness in check in some way, through discipline. This is where admiration can be helpful. It’s hard to come up with a virtue plan for a person and say, “These are the specific ways that I’m going to help you grow in discipline.” It’s easier to point to someone and say, “Look at this person who is living a flourishing life and honors God in their activities, who has the right passion for winning but has joy even when they don’t win.” That’s how admiration can play such a crucial role in moral development. The people we admire provide us with a vision of what virtue—and a good life—looks like, so we can do likewise.

FVasek: Do any examples of different sorts of admiration – or the different sorts of people we admire – come to mind?

SL: The saints are the first to come to mind. They’re all very different from one another, but the one thing that is consistently exemplary among them is their excellence of loves. They have right-ordered love of God and right-ordered love of their fellow man. Another group that comes to mind are the classical heroes, who are known for their excellence of spiritedness. To get an image of what it means to be spirited, think of the exploits of classical heroes, like Odysseus tying himself to the ship so that the sirens wouldn’t distract him. This seems to be what we admire in great athletes.

There are also more mundane examples, the sort of things we see in others on a more regular basis but still admire: that could include professors, coaches, some outstanding peer, or anyone who is excellent in some way. Moreover, our admiration of excellent people motivates us to act. We are inclined to imitate what is excellent in people we admire.

A soccer player preparing to kick the ball

Finding God's Greatness

Fr. Chase Hilgenbrinck, a priest and retired professional soccer player, spoke with Fr. Craig Vasek, Athletics Chaplain of the University of Mary, on virtue, greatness, and sport.

Finding God's Greatness

FVasek: For those of us who work with young people, the importance of good examples of role models is so clear. We want our students and scholar-athletes to recognize excellence in others and admire it and be drawn to it. So perhaps you could speak to this directly: what does admiration do inside an individual that is good?

SL: Admiration is an impetus and a motivation to put on the qualities we admire. So when I am admiring my husband, for example, I’m having an appreciative perception of something about him and I may begin to name the good-making features in him. I can think, “He’s so conscientious, he’s so disciplined.” Seeing these excellent qualities alive in a person makes them more appealing than just hearing about them. For example, "conscientious" is just a disconnected concept until you see it and perceive its value in someone you admire. Good-making qualities shine when we see them in another person. Think about someone you really admire. When you think about what is excellent in them, those qualities become appealing to you – they are qualities you want in yourself. Admiration is a source by which we encounter others’ virtues.

The desire to imitate someone you perceive as excellent is natural. Small children are a perfect example of this. I have a nine-month-old daughter, and she wants exactly the food I’m eating and holds her face with the same mannerisms. She’s only nine months old and is already imitating me. Kids find a certain mimetic pleasure in imitating others. As we get older, it becomes a little more sophisticated: we have habits in place already, so we’re a little more resistant to imitating other people immediately. But still, when we see someone who is excellent – someone who is beyond us in a relevant domain but not so far beyond us that they seem inimitable – we’re drawn to take on those same qualities.

FVasek: That all leads into a distinction I’ve seen you make elsewhere between admiration and awe. As I understand it, admiration arises when I see someone excellent and feel like I could go after that excellence myself, and awe arises when I see someone excellent and feel like their excellence is beyond me. Is that right? Are they both positive responses?

Awe is appropriate in certain situations: there are some entities that are beyond us! God, for instance, is owed our awe. Admiration is when we see something that is imitable. But sometimes we confuse those emotions. Sometimes, when we see someone like Michael Jordan who is so far beyond us in terms of his drive and dedication and abilities on the basketball court, we feel awe and just stop there. Passivity arises because we have the wrong emotion in place. In reality, Michael Jordan is human like the rest of us, and while he greatly exceeds most of us in playing basketball, we should recognize that many of his excellent qualities are imitable, like his courage, perseverance, and his dedication. When we recognize excellence in other people we should emulate those same qualities rather than defaulting to awe.

Defaulting to awe is a way we excuse ourselves: “Well obviously Michael Jordan is great, but I’m not Michael Jordan, I’m Sabrina!” It’s a kind of a cop-out because it allows us to avoid naming the other person’s imitable qualities and striving after them ourselves. I’ll never have the wingspan or the natural talent of Michael Jordan, but there is still a lot within my control.

FVasek: So would the main distinction between admiration and awe be that in both situations I am amazed by another person, but with admiration I feel that I can move toward that greatness and with awe I feel like it’s simply too far beyond me?

SL: Exactly. Think of all the passages in Scripture where someone is drawn to their knees by the glory of God. They are halted, and there is a sort of passivity there. That’s an example of awe in an appropriate situation. At the same time, we are called to imitate Christ. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is really good on this point: Christians are to admire Christ and take the initiative of putting the qualities of Christ upon themselves. So in the case of Christ, we both admire him and are in awe of him.

FVasek: So how can admiration lead to change? When we find ourselves admiring someone, what can we do?

SL: Sometimes it’s hard to know how to go about imitating someone in the right way. As I said, I think a lot of the time we see someone excellent and just stop there. I had this experience a couple of weeks ago: I was watching a race online of this excellent runner who broke the American record in the 100K, and I just thought, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And I was just about to turn off my computer and move on when I realized that is exactly what I tell people not to do! We experience pleasant admiring feelings and then move on. So what can we do with those feelings?

If we want to develop the qualities that make us admire another person, the first thing we need to do is pause and name what those excellences are. It’s hard to imitate something that’s sort of an amorphous good. It’s so unfocused if we just say, “Wow, that guy is awesome,” and then move on. When we name the qualities, our reasons for admiring the other person become much clearer.

Once we are clear on which qualities we want to develop, we have to start acting on them. Aristotle says we develop virtues through practicing them: men become builders by building, men become lyre players by playing lyre, and men become just by doing just acts. So we develop moral virtues by acting those virtues out. Every time I go outside and put my sneakers on, I’m not only practicing the physical side of training but I’m also practicing the virtue of perseverance.

The goal is for the virtues I practice to become second nature to me. And that’s one of the reasons that athletics makes such a great domain for virtue edification: the language of practice is so natural to that sphere. Athletes know what practice is, they know how to show up every day to do the same thing again and again. What if we did that with justice, temperance, or joy? When we’ve identified the qualities we want to develop, we have to draw up a plan and practice them.

FVasek: Your example of watching a video of someone excellent online but then simply moving on hits close to home. Our scholar-athletes experience this sort of thing every day. They’re overwhelmed by other people's talent, abilities, and progress on a daily basis: athletes on their own team and from teams they compete against, athletes playing at the next highest level and the professional level. It’s all there to see on television, the internet, and social media. And it can be so easy to fall prey to passivity.

SL: And that raises the question of comparison. Comparison can go really well and it can go really badly. Competition can be a striving together. Teammates can be a great asset because they can push you a lot further than you can push yourself. Comparing yourself to teammates (or even competitors) in a healthy way is called emulation. Emulation refers to seeing an excellence that you want in someone of similar abilities. At the same time, it can have a negative emotion affixed to it, a sort of pang you feel when you recognize that someone who is on the same level as you – the same scholarship, same roster, with the same time and resources – has somehow gotten a better jump shot. And that pang is good because it motivates you to be excellent. I think this captures the idea of outdoing each other in good deeds. You see the excellence in a peer and want the same for yourself.

Comparative thinking can go badly, as well. Think of invidious envy. You see the excellence of the person next to you and you want them not to have it. That’s how competition can break down. When people speak of competition in negative terms, they’re often simply referring to envy. That’s what comes across when people say things like “comparison is the thief of joy.” But comparison, emulation, and admiration can be a great source for seeing the good in another and recognizing ways you can improve yourself. It’s envy, not competition itself, that derails the process.

FVasek: Our scholar-athletes need to compare themselves with their opponents to train accordingly. Athletes need to know where they stack up so they can prepare and improve. It seems like an athlete has to pay attention to their opponent, at least out of respect. But that comparison goes bad when I use it to tear myself down or another person down.

We’ve spoken about admiration and motivation, so I was wondering if you could speak to your own experience as an athlete. Who have you admired on this journey of running forever and ever? Forrest Gump?

SL: I do like the simplicity of Forrest Gump! I obviously admire peak performers like Courtney Dauwalter and Jim Walmsley. They’re consistently very good athletes. But the people I admire most in running, strangely, are the moms, because they’re somehow figuring out a way to make this absurd sport work and make sure that their families are still flourishing. There is one woman in particular, Sophie Speidel, whom I’ve admired for years. She has a great relationship with her children, is great at her job, and she trains hard every day. Running as a sport can be so all-encompassing and take over so much of your life, and that’s something I’m particularly sensitive to. So when I see athletes who are doing it well with integrity in their home lives, I can’t help but admire them.

FVasek: But there’s an important point: you are admiring people based on your state in life. If we are going to develop as people, we have to do so within our state in life. This would be a good point of reflection for our scholar-athletes: Don’t just look at the person who is the best in your sport, but look at the person who is performing in that sport at a high level while also doing other important things at a high level. They will serve as a better model for you.

SL: There’s been some empirical literature on the people we choose to admire. It turns out that we don’t typically admire people who seem like they’re perfect; instead, we tend to admire people who seem more accessible or relatable to us. So it makes sense that I would admire different people than a young football player would.

When we set up another person as our exemplar, we have to be careful to recognize that they’re not going to be perfect in every way. We risk becoming misguided and go astray when we think our role models are perfect and purely excellent. But a healthy sense of admiration helps with that.

FVasek: This has all been very helpful. I was hoping you could weigh in on one last question: How do you deal with shin splints?

SL: The best way to treat shin splints is to prevent shin splints: run on soft surfaces, use a foam roller, and don’t increase your training intensity too quickly. You just have to prevent them.

FVasek: Dr. Little, thank you for your time!

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