Where to turn when all is lost
"Your life is your life. Don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
Be on the watch.
There are ways out. There is light somewhere. It may not be much light,
but it beats the darkness.
Be on the watch.
The gods will offer you chances. Know them, take them. You can’t beat death,
but you can beat death in life, sometimes.
And the more often you learn to do it, the more light there will be.
Your life is your life.
Know it while you have it. You are marvelous. The gods wait to delight in you."
~ Charles Bukowski
William Shatner (92), of Star Trek fame, recently experienced something most of us will never know, something called the "overview effect." The term was coined by space philosopher Frank White in his 1987 book of the same name.
Shatner shared his experience of this overview effect in his memoir Boldly Go. He felt "the strongest feelings of grief" while looking into space during his flight with Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin.
"I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness," said Shatner. "It was unlike blackness you can see or feel on Earth... 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."
According to Frank White, "the overview effect is a cognitive and emotional shift in a person's awareness, their consciousness and their identity when they see Earth from space. They're at a distance and they're seeing Earth... in the context of the universe."
It’s easy to get caught up in our own little world, and to forget that this planet and the people in it are all we’ve got. Astronaut Bill Anders famously said this after Apollo 8: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
Most of us know something about William Shatner and astronauts, but what do we know about Brigadier General "Robbie" Risner? What can Shatner and the Brigadier teach us about hope, and something worth clinging on to, when we're at the very end of our rope?
Brigadier General "Robbie" Risner
Brig. Gen. "Robbie" Risner was an ace fighter pilot in the United States Air Force. He was held and tortured for seven and a half years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a North Vietnamese prison. Four and a half of those years were spent in forced isolation. And the Brigadier's Vietnamese captors boarded up his cramped seven-by-seven-foot cell, shutting out the light, leaving him in complete darkness... for ten solid months.
The Brigadier exercised and prayed during this time. But often he could only scream from the horror of his reality. Yet, he had the presence of mind to scream with his mouth full of his own clothing to keep his captors from thinking they’d broken him.
One day the Brigadier crawled under his bunk and discovered a vent letting in outside air. As he pressed his face against the vent, he noticed a faint glimmer of light reflected on the inside wall of the opening.
He put his eye next to the concrete wall and found a thin crack in the cement. It allowed him to look outside just enough to see a single blade of grass in the dim light.
As he stared at this blade of grass he felt a surge of joy, excitement and gratitude like nothing he had ever known.
It was in that single blade of grass the Brigadier felt a glimmer of hope. He found what he needed in order to survive. This shift in his worldview, in identity, saved his life. The Brigadier wrote about his ordeal in The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese
"When there's hope in the future, there's power in the present." ~ Zig Ziglar
From the infinite universe, to a single blade of grass; from adventure in a rocket ship, to survival in a prison cell, and everywhere in between, it's been there all along for all of us. We can draw from it whenever we want, from anywhere, under any circumstance. It's not just hope or prayer. Science refers to it as "the small self effect."
But it's actually something less technical sounding and less wordy than that.
It's the power of awe.
“If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God… he does not come to us from books, he lives within us… This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing.” ~ Hermann Hesse
Awe evokes those mind-bending moments when we're filled with wonder and gratitude at the world around us. Being awe-inspired is good for you—and easy, if you know where to look.
“Awe is the human reaction to the sublime,
to the inexplicable, to the grandiose, the magnificent”
Scientific research suggests there's a link between feelings of awe and wonder, and our well-being. A recent perspective article published in Frontiers of Psychology compared this connection to a mindfulness technique that can potentially help us "flourish, enhance resilience, and have a positive impact on overall wellbeing."
In his excellent book, Awe, the new science of everyday wonder and how it can transform your life, Dacher Keltner begins with the question, "How can we live the good life? One enlivened by joy and community and meaning, that brings us a sense of worth and belonging and strengthens the people and natural environments around us?"
Keltner continues, "Now, twenty years into teaching happiness, I have an answer: FIND AWE."
“The forces of nature, the invisible, the microscopic, the immensity of the universe,
life, art … there are so many phenomena that leave us without words
and redefine our relationship to the world.” ~ Edith Joris
Faced with the enormity of a cold, black emptiness of outer space, William Shatner found solace in the awe of Earth.
Embracing the reality of a cold, black emptiness of solitary confinement, Brigadier General Robbie Risner found hope in the awe of a blade of grass.
Through each of their stories it occurred to both men they were part of something unexplainably bigger than themselves. In that sense awe can be a formative and transformative experience for anyone, including you and me.
In Shatner's words, his experience "reinforced tenfold my own view on the power of our beautiful, mysterious collective human entanglement, and eventually, it returned a feeling of hope to my heart."
In the Brigadier's words, his experience "represented life, growth, and freedom, and I knew God hadn't forgotten me!"
"Our experiences of awe move us to wander
toward the mysteries and wonders of life." ~ Dacher Keltner
There's power in awe. And it's accessible to everyone, you don't have to be an astronaut or prisoner of war to experience it. You just need curiosity. Let the awe you find, (or when it finds you), remind you of the grandeur, and the mysteries and wonders of life. Look for it with all your senses. Embrace it. Consume it. Share it.
It’s out there looking for you, but if you’re not available, it’ll search for another collaborator.
Awe experiences encourage kindness, and make us more connected to each other and our environment. In the end, isn't that what really matters?
Hello! I’m Michael Kennedy, Olympic Valley, CA resident. I’m a freelance writer and photographer. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please share with others. I value your attention, it means a lot to me and it helps others see the story. If you're interested in any awe-inspired photos in this post, or in my gallery: click here, or just call or text at 530.608.9150. Let me know what size you want, and I'll send a quote. My email: firstname.lastname@example.org.