A view from above - the overview effect
If you have ever looked down upon the world from a high vantage point; whether you have climbed a mountain and gazed across the landscape before you seeing all the way to the horizon, or climbed a skyscraper and experienced the quiet and beauty of looking at a city from above, or looked out of the window on an airplane at 40,000ft, you will notice the world looks very different from above, you see how small everything really is and feel a connection to something bigger. There is a calming clarity in seeing the world from afar.
In the Hellenistic and Roman world, philosophers often spoke of viewing the world from above; of seeing the entire sum of humanity as one. They imagined looking down upon the earth as the stars do, seeing all the nations and armies, weddings, funerals and feasts. Seeing each and every person with their own hopes, dreams, fears and worries.
They believed that seeing the world in this way gave us a clear perspective; what seemed like big worries or problems look small and insignificant when looked at from afar; large armies become nothing but little ants, while great cities look no bigger than matchboxes.
When the Stoics felt they needed to realign their perspective on life, they would soar above the buildings and the cities, the hills and the mountains and all the worries and stresses of life. In their minds eye, they would rise through the clouds into the velvet black of space, turn and look upon the earth as the stars do; seeing the world as one living organism, watching the forests go from green to brown, the rivers changing their courses and see the ice caps melt and freeze; they would watch the clouds drift and swirl, how slowly everything moves, all the people who have ever existed, all those dreams, hopes, worries and fears; seeing all of existence, all at once.
In the same way you can only appreciate and understand a jigsaw puzzle when all its pieces are joined together as a single image; you can only begin to understand life and your place within it when you have all of earth before your eyes.
'How beautifully Plato put it whenever you want to talk about people, it’s best to take a bird’s-eye view and see everything all at once. Of gatherings, armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, noisy courtrooms or silent spaces, every foreign people, holidays, memorials, markets. All blended together and arranged in a pairing of opposites.’ - Marucs Aurelius.
This feeling of stainless clarity and deep understanding of the bigger picture is now known as the overview effect.
A chosen few no longer have to imagine being with the stars, they can do if for real; these people are astronauts.
Many who enter space report an intense emotional experience they feel when they look upon the earth for the first time. Suspended in space, they can look upon all things and they see that the earth is alive. They get an understanding of the big picture and are no longer Americans or Russians, British or Chinese; they are humans. They no longer belong to different nations but one planet and it is all of their responsibility to protect it. They see the earth as one living organism and begin to think on a planetary scale. They no longer care about nations or political pettiness but believe in nothing but a global duty to our home, our planet and all of humanity; to love it, and protect it for the generations to come.
Here is what some astronauts have said:
‘You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ - Edgar Mitchel
‘It’s constantly changing, the colours, the shadows, the terrain, everything is changing and all this motion, colours and light really gives you the sense that we live on a living, breathing organism...When you’re up there for months at a time you can actually see the ice breaking up in the harbour, you can see this line that represents the changing leaf colours slowly march from south to north, to north to south, And those long term seasonal changes, when you put them together with the routine day to day changes, again give you this impression that we all live on a living, breathing organism, this living thing that we call Earth, a living biosphere’ - Ron Garan
‘From space, the planet is a constantly changing masterpiece and the sheer beauty is absolutely breathtaking. It looks like a shining jewel and you realise that it’s home to everyone who ever lived and everyone who ever will be. But another thing that hit me was a sobering contradiction between the beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet. It filled me with a sense of injustice. It infuriated me.’ Ron Garan
‘A brilliant jewel in the black velvet sky.’ - Buzz Aldrin
‘Only when I saw the Earth from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realise that humankind's most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.’ - Sigmund Jahn
'Mankind is advanced technically. Man can build space stations, can assemble them in space, and ponders about landing on Mars, but the development of mankind itself seems to stagnate on stone age level.' - Sigmund Jahn
One day, in the future (hopefully), we will be the first generation able to see the world from space, and feel what the first people who made fire felt for the first time; to feel and see all that possibility blaze, move and dance before our eyes, knowing that the world will never be the same again.
One day, fate permitting, we will be able to experience that, but until then, close your eyes and allow your mind to open and rise.