Sermon “The Overview from Here”
Copyright Sarah K. Person
Delivered April 6, 2014 to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro
Seeing the Earth from the moon or in orbit has had a profound effect on astronauts. The concept originated with Frank White in his book The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution. It leaves those who experience the effect with a profound desire to protect our “pale blue dot” of a home. Imagine living one’s life without territories. Join us as we explore this perspective on an Earth without artificial boundaries; one to which we can dedicate ourselves as stewards and protectors. It requires a radical shift in the way we see ourselves, a new ethos toward the world in which we live – for now.
What’s important indeed?
In 1968 I was a teenager who despaired of ever having a normal life. My mother loved the land. She loved gardening and working the soil. She had few real homes when she was a child, traveling with vaudeville, being placed in boarding schools or with relatives. When she grew up and married my dad, she finally found anchor with their first home in Tuckahoe, New York. She literally and figuratively planted herself when she planted her garden.
My dad worked nights, and didn’t have vacations unless he could afford to pay a sub, so we didn’t travel much – except for occasional day-long getaways. Our excursions were to notable parks and scenic drives. One memorable afternoon, my mom espied an ebony spleenwort along the side of the road – an endangered species of fern in those days. She made my dad stop the car so they could quick dig it up with her handy trowel and take it home to her garden. It was illegal, of course. And their command to me as they ran out of the car was to watch my sisters and watch out for the park police. Now mind you, I had no idea what to do if a park ranger came along, or even what he would look like. Large and green and with a gun, I thought. My mom brought her prize home and lovingly protected it in her garden. She was doing her bit to save the ebony spleenwort from sure extinction along the side of the road.
My mom did that a lot; justified her actions with their global importance. Act locally and think globally would have been her mantra. It drove me nuts. What did I know? If snark had been a word in those days, it would have been my mantra. I was very, very protected in that garden of a home my mom and dad made for us.
The world in 1968 was in turmoil, and my parents spent a goodly amount of time hushed and sad. A little over 45 years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot and killed. Upon hearing of this, Robert Kennedy, readying for a campaign speech in Indianapolis, delivered instead a powerful and spontaneous eulogy asking his audience “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Two months later to the day, Robert Kennedy himself was assassinated.
1968 was notable for violence in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, in Prague, in Chicago. As the tumultuous year drew to a close, on Christmas Eve, the crew of the Apollo 8 mission was in orbit around the Moon and captured photographs of the Earth, in all her gentle serenity, rising above the Moon’s horizon. All the savagery of humankind had left no evidence. Earthrise is the name given to the most famous photograph from that 1968 mission, and it was taken by astronaut William Anders. He said, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
The overview has a profound effect on our priorities. I find it somewhat ironic that the frontier mindset, the early philosophy of space exploration and colonization that propelled much of our scientific effort and the heroism of our astronauts, created instead a deep call to preserve our home, to recognize our dependence on one another, and to free ourselves from all notions of which side of the street we were supposed to be.
When you look at images of Earth from the Moon or out in space, it takes a moment to orient yourself. There is no north or south or east or west, just like weightlessness on our spacecraft means there is no up or down. There are only the forces of gravity and distance from and speed in relation to. Directions are artificial constructs, just like property rights and political boundaries. There are only landmasses and deep, deep blue bodies of water and white cloud formations. Africa may stretch from left to right. Antarctica may sit on top like a gigantic yarmulke. All of this on the surface of a bright oblate spheroid in continual motion in the black and silent reaches of space. From 900 million miles away, from the rings of Saturn, we are a glowing pale blue dot. As Frank White says, “The truth is that we are already in space. The Earth is a natural spaceship orbiting the sun, which is itself hurtling around the galactic center, which is in turn rushing through the universe along with billions of other galaxies.” We are objects in space compelled to follow great forces of which we are completely unaware, like fish who do not realize that they are in water.
All the pictures in the world do not prepare space travelers who escape the bonds of gravity and see it for themselves. Something profound happens to the men and women who go out into space and see Earth at a distance, whether it’s several miles or 100,000 miles. Like Rusty Schweickart, they develop a fierce attachment to the whole of it, and a devotion to open the eyes of those antagonists who fight over territory instead of preserving the beauty of the planet. They have developed an affinity for the whole, rather than artificial parts. “I think the view from 100,000 miles could be invaluable in getting people together to work out joint solutions,” said Michael Collins of Apollo 11, “by causing them to realize that the planet we share unites us in a way far more basic and far more important than differences in skin color or religion or economic system. The pity of it is that so far the view from 100,000 miles has been the exclusive property of a handful of test pilots, rather than the world leaders who need this new perspective, or the poets who might communicate it to them.”
Being in space, seeing the Earth, flying above it at tremendous speed, changed Ed Gibson – a Skylab astronaut who went on three excursions outside the spacecraft. “In no way could we on Earth, or any group of people or any country consider ourselves isolated; we are all in this together…You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe,” He said. “Your life and concerns are important to you of course. But you can see that a lot of the things you worry about don’t make much difference in an overall sense. The result is that you enjoy the life that is before you; you don’t sweat so much about the next milestone…It allows you to have inner peace.”
The closest I’m going to get to that sensation is in a movie theater watching Sandra Bullock in “Gravity.” So how can I bring this closer to home? I can be transformed nonetheless. This is a transformation, a profound change in one’s orientation to the universe, but also a profound change in what is important. Think of what is important to you, today. (I know, the all-important season has begun! )
Think of what happens when we align ourselves to what we think is important. We have an affinity, an enjoyment of something that becomes part of our identity. That’s what Schweickart called attachments. Second, our affinities give us perspective on how we fit in the world. The most important landmark from space for a Texan might have been the Astrodome. For some of us it might be another stadium or ballpark! Third, we develop an ethic for how we are supposed to act on what we think is right and important. A sports fan will focus on the team, will judge what is important and how to conduct himself or herself – to jump up and down and yell cheers or insults – based on what’s going on in the field. But what if this sports fan starts to have a radical change in perspective, what then?
Schweickart started to develop an attachment to the coast of Africa, and then to the world. A sports fan might develop a love of the game rather than a team. You’ve met them. These are the fans who like a great contest no matter who wins or loses.
We all have our affinities and allegiances. They could be to a family, a town, a team, a job, a military unit, a country. They create and are created by our perspective on life. What happened to these astronauts is that their perspective was changed, and their affinities changed as well. What also happened is that their sense of rightness, and what was important, and what they felt called to do, changed irrevocably.
Imagine that you are a Cobras football fan – attending every game, a real booster. Then, imagine you have transferred your most powerful personal attachment to the New England Patriots. Then, transfer your attachment to East Division, then the American Football Conference, then the National Football League, then to American football. Imagine what it would be like to be wholly and completely attached to American football instead of a particular team or town. What is important to you is not going to be statistics, but the science and heart of the game. Your ethical behavior is going to focus on keeping the game exciting, fun and fair. What’s going to be important is sportsmanship. That’s what this kind of shift in perspective requires.
Does that take the fun out of it for you, or could you go along with the change? And what about baseball? I know Red Sox fans who only take an educational interest in games between other teams, and maybe the All Star game. But they also love the game itself, and worry about how greed and chemistry and unethical conduct can bring it down.
Is it possible to hang on to one’s local allegiances, to one’s team, to one’s garden, but to care deeply about the picture from 100,000 miles? I think it is, I think we have to, but we have to work hard at it. We can’t ignore the big picture. I think the image that captures this idea best for me is the photo mosaic. You’ve seen them; a mural portrait and you look closely and realize it’s made up of hundreds of thousands of tiny pictures. That’s what this world is like, what this universe is like – huge and glorious and unfathomable and made up of smaller and smaller systems, smaller and smaller personal stories, smaller and smaller cells and atoms and particles that obey forces we’re only beginning to understand.
It can be hard to shift perspectives, especially if you’re an individualist with your head down and focused on getting through. We’ve created these concepts of survival of the fittest, might makes right, manifest destiny, space the final frontier, to justify our actions. As Americans, we particularly hang on to this notion of an autonomous and pioneering spirit without which we will get soft and die. But I want you to think about something. Our faith asks us to shift our perspective on life. Our faith says that real growth and maturity might be survival of the kindest, preservation of the future for all, leaving behind a greater legacy when our time comes. Our faith asks of us a reverence for all that is and might be, an allegiance to the interdependent web of all things.
When we expand our affinities and perspective to a scale beyond our own, we becomes in effect citizens of the world, of the solar system, of the universe. That’s what happened to our astronauts. That’s what can happen to us.
To be fully present and accountable to this life, might require that we commit ourselves to more than the space we occupy, than the town we live in, than the industry we serve, than the nation we belong to, than even our species itself. It may mean that we recognize we need to live out lives of purpose and meaning that contribute to that big picture. We cannot all grab leaders of warring countries and yank them into orbit and force them to look at a world without boundaries. Much as we might like to. We can still live as if the microcosm of our lives affects the macrocosm of our universe. Because, in point of fact, that is the truth of the matter. And the macrocosm affects the microcosm of our lives – just ask any homeowner on the seashore. To act locally and think globally reflects that truth – and God bless my mom who could see that so clearly in spite of me.
So, what can we do to become who we are – citizens of the world clinging to this pale blue dot in space? Will you help us end global warming and reduce erosion? Will you help our species survive by eliminating prejudice and ending poverty? Will you help to rectify injustices and restore balance by empowering those without a voice in our society? Will you look at our society and our world without artificial demarcations and boundaries but as a whole? We need to find a connection, a continuity between what we do and the big picture. Find something you can commit to with all your heart and soul and ask us to join you. Let us find something together and ask something of each other.