The experience of traveling in space is life-changing. For all of the reasons that immediately come to mind – the years preparation, the level of commitment required, the danger and fear that must be overcome, the isolation and extreme conditions experienced by those spending weeks and months in space. All of these are without a doubt life altering experiences. Many astronauts, however, describe another experience as the most life changing of all. The perspective altering experience of seeing the earth from a distance – as a planet in space – is referred to as the Overview Effect. Those who have experienced it have a transformed perspective of the planet and humankind’s place upon it. “Common features of the experience are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.” (http://www.overviewthemovie.com/#!/about/)
In other words, a radically new perspective of our planet gave them a radically new perspective on our planet. Distance and viewpoint changed everything – permanently. The results are fascinating and can be seen in detail on a beautiful 19 minute video at the following link: https://vimeo.com/55073825. It really illustrates the power of perspective.
The astronauts’ perspective is unique in that it is one that only a few human beings have had the opportunity to experience. Of the approximately 7.3 billion people on the planet, as of 2013 only 536 individuals have traveled into space. That is only a miniscule fraction of humankind. Yet they come back reporting to us how differently they see things, how interconnected we all actually are, how fragile our planet is. So life altering, so revolutionary, that they have difficulty communicating it to the rest of us. Their changed perspective changed everything.
And doesn’t it always?
We see everything that we see from a limited perspective – our individual lives, our families, our cultures, our jobs, our churches, our conflicts. How can we find an overview effect for our own lives? How do we find the distance, the viewpoint to see things more holistically, more clearly? In a way that changes us permanently?
Sometimes a major loss can jolt us in a way that changes our perspective. An accident or illness takes the life of a loved one and we see them, their life, their love, their place in our world in a completely different way. Or we lose our job and suddenly see our life circumstances and our understanding of meaningful work and what is “enough” in a completely new light. Or we experience major illness ourselves and our priorities are suddenly much clearer. Perhaps a divorce or another family crises refocuses our view of family and commitment.
Why do these things change our perspective? Because they shake us, confront us with the truth, waking us from the complacency of life where we think we know what to expect from every person and every situation. They force us to acknowledge that we never did know. And what we thought we understood, we only understood in part.
It’s not only pain that does this. It is also life, adventure, stretching ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Watch a baby being born and suddenly time stands still and Life feels very tangible. Travel to a new culture and smell new things, hear the music of an unfamiliar language, struggle to communicate and understand – and you realize that there is so much out there that you do not know – and that is good. Hear the perspective of world politics from someone on the other side of the globe and be humbled by your limited understanding.
We all need an overview from time to time. Like the fabled blind men describing the elephant, we can only perceive what is right in front of us. To get more understanding of the entirety of life – we have to move around, listen to others, encounter new things and be willing to risk being wrong.
When faced with difficulty, perspective is the thing we lack the most and of which we are the most in need. Our overview in times like these often comes from those who walk alongside us through the darkness. Friends, pastors, family, counselors, coaches – all can give us needed perspectives on the bigger picture and therefore clearer views on where to step next. It is not weakness, but wisdom, to recognize when we need guides to shift our perspective – to help us see the interconnectedness, fragility and strength of the “planet” we live on. Their overview can help grow our own and give us the clarity we need to move forward.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Only God “In whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) – sees fully, knows fully – and only with God one day will we ever have full perspective. In the meantime, we lean into life, into each other – and into the faith, hope and love of which Paul writes. We find every opportunity to stretch ourselves, broaden our experiences, listen to our lives, learn from our pain, embrace miracles, risk adventure. To find our overview effect and be forever transformed. Because changed perspective changes everything.