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February 22, 2024

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    Lauren Slater crafts diligent, depictive metaphors in narrative, and I hate her writing, simultaneously. Should there be lying in memoir? In her book, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir (2000), Slater crafts lies from epilepsy to nunneries to doctor visits and proposed peer reviewed theses to AA meetings. However, within these lies, she allows us to question […]
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Reflecting an overview effect causes conviction to change

I recently came across an article discussing what has been called the “overview effect,” a psychological phenomenon allegedly experienced by some astronauts while in space, particularly after having viewed our planet from afar.

In a typical case, astronauts are overcome by a profound sense of euphoria and wonder – an incomparable, spellbinding awareness of just how precious, wonderful, and rare our home is, situated against the unforgiving emptiness of vast space.

The power of this feeling is such that some astronauts have been reluctant to return to earth, lest they lose the intensity of this new awareness, which they later describe as a life-changing evolution in their consciousness.

They are frustrated with the small-mindedness of so many of our conflicts and preoccupations.

They return to us with new eyes to see our world, a strong sense of what truly matters in the grand cosmological scheme of things, and a yearning for world peace and interstellar exploration.

As I read this article, I heard the words of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson echo around me.

The overview effect merely crystallizes a fundamental truth that they both voiced: we are all in this together.

We may forget, but in the final analysis we are all interconnected and, therefore, interdependent.

As Tyson noted, “The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago…we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world…we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”

The corollary to this is the oft-cited quote, “We are the universe experiencing itself.”

When you really internalize this existential fact, you might be struck by your own sense of wonder, pride, or humility. Or you might be asking yourself a question: if we are the universe experiencing itself, then how are we liking that experience?

I do not mean to diminish what sounds like a singularly beautiful and moving experience, but how far divorced are we from being truly attuned to the wonders of the universe if it takes us going off-world to actually appreciate our planet?

While that may be true in some ways, I am a big believer in acting to change the way things are.

That is why I chose public service as my calling. No, I believe that the world will only be as good as we make it, and if we do not stand up for what we believe in – and if we are not intellectually strong enough to entertain criticism of what we believe – then the world will regress.

I raise the question, rather, because I am strongly suspicious that many of us get “the big picture” wrong.

If astronauts feel that they finally have a sense of our place in the universe, and they find it truer or more appropriate than their previous sense (the one we have), then maybe we are getting some things wrong.

What are we to say for the vast majority of us who cannot become astronauts and experience the overview effect?

We perceive ourselves as distinct from those around us; we have our own unique likes, dislikes, and idiosyncrasies; and we interpret and evaluate matters from our own distinct perspective.

Life, in other words, is experienced as a separateness.

This separateness is inherently neither good nor bad, but individual experience can inhibit our ability to understand just how interconnected and interdependent we are, with terrible consequences for public policy – as well as individual behavior – when we fail to recognize and act on our responsibility to care for people who are poor, mistreated, abused, sick, injured, or dying.

The worst excesses of reactionary elements in modern political culture often reinforce this, to our shame, when they demonize and dehumanize our brothers and sisters who need our help.

Sometimes we can be so wrapped up in our own lives, identities and experiences, perhaps focused on a particular goal or preoccupied with a crisis, that we forget to see and treat each other the way we should.

We may take our academic and/or experiential knowledge for granted, and assume those without our knowledge are stupid or ignorant.

We may assume if others are having a hard time, it must be their fault, and we owe them no assistance.

We may privilege our perspective, emotions, or needs over another’s, or just flat out negative or invalidate theirs.

We may forget how to be kind, or avoid being presumptuous.

We may forget how to be grateful for friends, family, partners, and personal growth.

We may forget that every single person we meet is struggling with something, and most of us are asked to overcome a great many things while working and taking care of family.

When we lose sight of the truths revealed by the overview effect – that we are hurtling through space on a rock without recourse of another if we should damage it irreparably, that we are precious, that until we find evidence that we are not alone, all we have is each other, and that so far we do not have a good track record of treating each other well and seeking peace over war, that we are all a part of this incomprehensibly vast, mysterious universe – we risk turning inward, instead of outward; toward our never-ending list of idiosyncratic preoccupations, instead of toward each other; we risk turning away from compassion, wonder, empathy, and responsibility, and toward selfishness, cynicism, cruelty, and apathy.

I believe in striving for excellence, but I also believe in being more forgiving of others.

Let us try to imagine what those astronauts felt, so far up and alone that all they can identify as meaningful is all the people they love back home, and capture it for ourselves, and each day we will do our best to internalize it, and practice it in the world around us.

If enough of us do this, maybe one day an astronaut will go into space and not experience the overview effect – because she feels just as struck with wonder, love, and responsibility beyond our planet as she did while she was on it.

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