"Take a view from above - look at the thousands of flocks and herds, the thousands of human ceremonies, every sort of voyage in storm or calm, the range of creation, combination, and extinction. Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you, the lives lived now among foreign tribes; and how many have never even heard your name, how many will soon forget it, how many may praise you now but quickly turn to blame. Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book IX. 28)
Imagine you are looking out onto the Earth from the International Space Station. Our planet—blue and green and brown—shrouded by clouds in some places. No humans visible—just the Earth in all its splendor. The Earth from afar.
Yesterday you were complaining about the line at Starbucks, your teenager’s behavior, or your boss’s failure to acknowledge your contributions. From here you cannot see that tiny Starbucks, or your child or your boss. If you let yourself contemplate our planet for long enough and let yourself be absorbed by its beauty, you might forget—at least momentarily—your everyday concerns.
Perhaps at some point your mind will wander back to the Earth’s inhabitants: its 7 billion humans, its roughly 9 million species of fauna and flora. You might wonder what everyone is doing down there. The human comedy has been going on for roughly a hundred thousand years and it will likely come to an end in the future. Other life forms live alongside these humans; some species have existed before us and there might be others after ours goes extinct.
In the space station, you are out of the picture—just as you were before your birth and just as you will be after your death. Ponder this for a moment.
Imagining earthly events from above puts our lives in perspective. Although he had no concept of a space station, this exercise helped the Stoic Marcus Aurelius focus on the things that matter (the social good, for him) and the things that don’t (fame, for instance).
If I were peering down at the Earth from a space station, I hope that I would forget the little things that irritate me and would admire our planet. I have had the scaled down version of this experience beholding spans of snowy caps at sunset in the Alps with no one in sight. The silence that reigned stilled my mind. I felt the vastness of the Earth. I didn’t think of myself or others.
In A Religion of One’s Own, Thomas Moore quotes the astronaut Edgar Mitchell on his experience on the Apollo 14 mission: “The sensation was altogether foreign. Somehow I felt tuned into something much larger than myself, something much larger than the planet in the window. Something incomprehensibly big.” Moore characterizes Mitchell’s feeling of deep connection to the universe as a mystical experience.
Mitchell’s words, in fact, relate to the Stoic philosophy Marcus Aurelius embraced. Stoics consider God to permeate every part of the universe. For them, God, or eternal reason, orders every part of the world—from the burgeoning of flowers this spring to my hand movements as I type this essay. The idea that a divine reason resides in everything implies that we must learn to accept the unfolding of the universe even when we want it to be otherwise. For example, death is part of this unfolding and is something we ought to accept.
The view from above—whether imagined or experienced in the flesh—teaches us not only to let go of what is petty and worthless, but also to feel our oneness with the universe. It invites us to revere what is divine in it—and in us.