“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” ~Carl Sagan
I’m there with a hundred other people. The lights fade to a whisper then vanish, leaving us in darkness. Stars appear. Thousands of them, projected onto the dome screen above.
In the center of the screen is Earth with its emerald and amber lands and sapphire oceans frosted by clouds. We watch the planet’s rotation, and then we’re flying backward through space, and the Earth becomes small, tiny, nothing more than Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot…
It’s only a planetarium show. One of many that lays the whole universe bare at this museum. By this time, I’ve seen it almost a hundred times.
I was the guy in back who ran the shows. A couple touches on the screen and you sent the audience to space. Easy. For now.
My job at the museum was nearly stress free. I was finishing up my undergrad, and it worked well with my schedule.
Then I graduated and got promoted. My position completely changed to involve heavier guest relations. I didn’t think I would enjoy it, but I let the money, benefits, and coworkers sway me to it.
The next six months were some of the most stressful in my life.
Every day I left work exhausted, overwhelmed by the amount of guests I helped on a daily basis—on one particularly busy day the computer told me I had helped over 1,000 guests in an eight-hour period.
I was meditating and exercising regularly, and couldn’t keep up with the stress. I rarely had enough energy to go out after work, and I stopped seeing friends; I was too tired to be around anyone but my girlfriend.
I looked for ways to change the situation: I made suggestions to try and improve the positions, spoke to supervisors about what I could do to use my strengths in more effective ways, and even brought up the idea of creating a new position for me.
Between personnel departures and red tape, it didn’t go anywhere. I became more and more frustrated, and worse, just pulling up to the building in the morning or checking my email from home called up waves of anxiety.
I didn’t know what to do.
I was stuck in my thinking. I just didn’t realize it.
My anxiety and stress levels got so high, I almost got into a fistfight with a guest over a misunderstanding while on a break.
I’ve never punched at anyone outside of a martial arts class, and I was about to snap and throw the first one. With my whole body shaking like an airport massage chair, I walked away and left for the day.
What I should’ve done instead was walked into the planetarium for some new perspective.
There’s something called the “Overview Effect.” This happens to astronauts when they go into space, all the way out to the moon, and see the pale blue dot that is Earth in all of its entirety.
No borders. No conflicts. Just the beautiful rock hurtling through space that we all live on.
Anousheh Ansari, a space tourist who went to the international space station said, “If people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth….”
If you’re anything like me, you probably can’t afford to be a space tourist, and you’re probably not working on a homemade rocket in your backyard to shoot yourself into orbit (always a bad idea!)
So how can we use this experience to get new perspective and relieve stress? Like Mr. Rogers helped me do as a kid, we can imagine it (or visualize it, for all the adults out there).
1. What challenge are you facing?
As much as we sometimes want to skip to the end, we have to start somewhere.
What’s the situation that’s challenging you? Was it a stressful event earlier in the day? Maybe it’s something that happened in the past that still upset you. Or maybe it’s something you’re in the thick of, like my stressful museum job.
Picture yourself in the situation. Don’t just see it, but hear it and feel it as well. Bring in all the details you can to make it more real.
2. Blast off.
The problem with our own perspective is that it’s limited. Time to expand it.
Imagine yourself leaving your body. Your homemade rocket could be taking off, or maybe you’re gently floating out of yourself into the air.
Before leaving the atmosphere, look down with a bird’s-eye view. See yourself all the way down there. See everyone else involved, and see the challenge or situation in its entirety.
What do you see that you didn’t before? How does your perspective change from way up here?
Feel free to see how your perspective changes in relation to yourself, each person, and the challenge as a whole.
3. Leave Earth behind.
When you’re ready, it’s time to continue on your journey. Leave Earth behind, and head out into space until you can see the whole thing.
Ask yourself the same questions from #2 and any other that come to mind.
From way out here, what do you notice that’s new about your situation? What changes do you notice in your stress level?
4. Come on back.
If you need to, you can always go farther out, until Earth is just that tiny blue dot. But just like astronauts we can’t (yet) stay out there forever. If you’re ready, time to come on back.
But don’t float back into your own body. Instead, with your new, all-encompassing viewpoint, imagine yourself floating into the bodies of the other people first. See the situation with their viewpoint as well.
What do you learn?
This may be tough, especially if you’re feeling ill-will toward them. But often, the larger, total-Earth view helps with that.
When you’re ready, come on back to yourself. From your own eyes, check one more time. What do you see that you didn’t before? How has the situation changed for you?
5. Take action.
So you have a newfound perspective. What do you want to do with it?
What action can you take to improve the situation or do things differently? We usually can’t change other people, but we can change what we do and how we react to others.
Sometimes it might be something big—for me, since I couldn’t change my job, I left it. It took me awhile, and took a shift in my stuck thinking.
If I had used this exercise at the time, I might’ve left much earlier. Instead, it came down to my girlfriend seeing me stressed out, day after day, and telling me, “It’s not worth it.”
Picturing it now from high above, I can see how right she was. My work meant me no harm; in fact, the people there wanted the best for me.
I committed to a job and outgrew it. It was time to move on to bigger and better things, but I kept myself stuck out of fear of what would happen if I left.
From out here in space, the fear seems a little bit funny, but there are no harsh judgments. I see why I did it, so there’s compassion for both myself and for my managers and coworkers stuck in the same situation.
Up here, there’s no borders, no conflict. Just feeling present in the moment with love for a pale blue dot and its people hurtling through the universe.
Astronaut in space image via Shutterstock