Both sides now

February 17, 2020 · Print This Article

Air travel is something that many of us take for granted. We happily board planes. We travel to destinations that are the other side of the world. For those who are ‘frequent fliers’, this gravity-defying experience can become mundane. For some of us it is a source of overwhelming fear, even panic – described by some as a phobia – an unreasonable fear. Because I tend to fall into this latter category, it is not something that I do very often.

It wasn’t always like that. The first flight I took was a long one – Heathrow to Los Angeles. From a window seat, just over the wing, I was overwhelmed by the different view of the world I was confronted with. Joni Mitchell’s beautiful, if somewhat depressing, song – ‘Both Sides Now’ –begins with an attempt to describe clouds – those towering but fragile mountains of nothing.

When there were gaps in the clouds there were glimpses of distant green land, brown land, snow-covered land and the uneven shadows cast by mountains. But it was what couldn’t be seen that I found myself focusing on; the lines that we have drawn on the land – even the bits that are uninhabited. These boundaries – the borders between one country and another –  we jealously guard; we fight over them, we build fences and walls along them.

Perceiving this earth – this universe – from space, is something that a very small, select group of people have been able to do. And if you read the words some of these people have written, it is clear that the experience of being an astronaut, and viewing the earth from a lot further away than a trans-Atlantic flight, has changed them. They have seen our little planet in the endless blackness of space. The borders are irrelevant. The author, Frank White, summarised the concept with the term, ‘The Overview Effect’.

One astronaut, Michael Collins, who flew on the Apollo 11 mission, shared his thoughts: “The thing that really surprised me was that it (Earth) projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile”.

Another writer without the opportunity for space travel, probably writing more than 3,000 years ago, achieved a very similar perspective. In his eponymous book of the Old Testament, Job describes the earth, as though from outer space, “He (God) stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth on nothing”.

In this poem from the 26th chapter of Job, he is setting his own, not insignificant, suffering against the greatness and majesty of the wider creation. It is claimed that we can all achieve the Overview Effect from more terrestrial activities.  Reading beautiful poetry, looking at the night sky, watching the sun set and even random acts of kindness can create a sense of awe, which is at the heart of the Overview Effect.We can’t all be astronauts. But we can all “zoom out” and see this fragile world from a better perspective, from beyond the boundaries of our personal lives.

Maggie Mitchell

Maggie is an editor at Because

Image Credit: NASA
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