The Overview Effect

‘To boldly go’

William Shatner hoped that by going into space in October 2021 at a mere 90 years of age, he would experience what he called “the ultimate catharsis”, a sense of the connection between all living things. I understand that sentiment so well, we all long for completeness, don’t we? A sense of interconnection, of relevance, knowledge (indeed, the motive for the original sin was a desire to know as much as God does, to understand everything). Shatner hoped that up there, beyond the confines of the Earth, he would – with that fabulous new perspective – make sense of the Universe, of life itself. But that wasn’t what he experienced, not at all.

In his own words: ‘When I looked into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold . . . all I saw was death.”

“I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. .. I turned back toward the light of home… I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her.”

Shatner writes “It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral. “

When he returned to Earth after that amazing experience, Shatner was overcome with emotion and disillusionment. “Everybody else was shaking bottles of champagne, and it was quite a sense of accomplishment. And I didn’t feel that way at all.” Shatner said.

Only later did he realise that he had experienced the “Overview Effect”, a reaction common among astronauts. It’s a little bit like (and the very opposite of) my friend Gareth who loves sea swimming every morning. because it gives him a sense of his place in the universe, seeing himself as a tiny tiny scrap of life in all of history and space and existence. But Gareth finds joy in the vastness of time and space, while Bill Shatner found despair. The same, you could say, but very different.

Of course Bill Shatner’s senses must have been deeply influenced and stimulated by fear. He says that he was terrified as he strapped himself into the rocket, remembering the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, knowing that in a second, a fraction of a second, it could all be done for him, his story told. When my friend Gareth thinks his thoughts, relaxing into the gentle sea, the worst that might happen is a seal popping up nearby to startle him, but Bill Shatner was strapped into a rocket, helpless, a bit bewildered, and very vulnerable shooting through space. It’s no wonder their conclusions are so different.

I do like William Shatner. He’s a character, right enough, a big bold full-on personality, a fireball of energy, and curiosity, even at 90 plus years of age. But if he’s looking for the meaning of life, he’s looking in the wrong place. The meaning of life isn’t ‘out there’. It isn’t in a view, or in travel and new experiences, the meaning of life is within us, around us, where we are right now.

The only Overview Effect I want, and the one that leaves me breathless and celebrating, is in the Bible. I get my perspective, my sense of awe and of history from its pages. Take Psalm 8, for example:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
 You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
 all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.

 Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

And listen to this, written hundreds of years before Christ, before man went up there into the vast nothingness….

He spreads out the northern skies over empty space;
    he suspends the earth over nothing.

Sometimes, Mr Shatner, dear old Bill, simple words, well written in truth, will deliver what a space rocket can’t ….. that sense of wonder and completeness.

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