The Overview Effect 👨‍🚀

Ariel Meadow Stallings
5 min readApr 7

We’re all just bile ducts and astronauts

Photo by the author.

I want to believe that deep transformation can happen without suffering, but everything I’ve experienced and witnessed suggests that it’s not how it works.

Life is stimulated by shock.

Growth isn’t comfortable.

I think of the evolution of life on this planet, the waves crashing on tidal flats for millions of years. The water churns, and the waves crash. The tide breathes up and down the beach daily for millions of years, mixing gasses and fluids and minerals over and over again, pounding itself to bits.

Ocean, rocks, and air eventually created a primordial soup.

Then all you need is fire.

You know what really stimulates growth and evolution? LIGHTNING. Whip that water/air/earth soup harder, and then shock the shit out of it! It’s very stimulating!

The momentum of the universe needs stimulation, and it isn’t selective about how to stimulate itself. The forces of evolution are fine with things that we moralistically consider pretty awful. For better or worse, evolution doesn’t care about human feelings or cultural values — just efficiency and results.

Let’s take a random bile duct, for instance. Is this bile duct “pretty”? Meh, it transports the resources effectively and makes the most of the materials available!

It adapts!

Excellent work, bile duct!

So metaphorically, when shit gets hard, here we are: electrocuted bile ducts laying on a beach somewhere, getting pounded by the surf and nourished by the brine, and then randomly a bolt of lightning shocks our entire system and HOLY FUCK that hurts, and we’re flopping around on the beach but we’re adapting quickly.

…What an adaptive little tube you are!

Looking back at the years of the pandemic, I amazed myself with how quickly I adapted. Each wave of shocking news hit me, and I usually only needed a 24-hour cycle to make my peace with whatever the new normal was.

Nothing surprised me. Every day I woke up and allowed myself one glance at the news and thought, “Well, here we are.”

For better or worse, I’ve felt the same about wave after wave of school shootings. I still vote for politicians who support gun control, still donate to gun reform organizations, but I’ve adapted.

That’s what we just keep doing, for better or worse: adapting.

Here we are! Bile ducts adapting quickly to this new electrocution beach of the Earth breathing itself through us!

The internet adds an interesting layer to this.

The energetic god mycelium of human relationship hasn’t had the disperse connection nodes that it does now. We’re connected by pandemics and memes and toilet paper shortages and conspiracy theories and TikTok dance challenges.

We’re connected by the fact that we’re all just vulnerable tubes of bacteria, and we’re all made of from molecules, and all it takes is a bit of infectious agent to recode our biology!

So while I believe Earth’s ecosystems have always been god in conversation with itself, through various slices of itself, we’re in a different phase now. The internet and air travel have shifted how our ecosystem functions.

Our brains and bodies are all part of the ecosystem now. They always have been, but we haven’t been as aware of it. We’re churning our primordial soups pretty hard right now, and the lightning that we shock ourselves comes from our smartphones — or rather, the news apps and social media that most of us have on our smartphones.

How this all relates to astronauts

I’m reminded of the Overview effect, where astronauts come home with a very different impression of the planet, how small and fragile it is, and how interconnected we are.

From Wired’s article about spaceflight and spirituality:

In 1987, the author Frank White gave the quasi-religious experience of seeing Earth from space a name. He called it the overview effect. Unlike the explicitly Christian experiences of the Apollo astronauts, the overview effect is more of a spiritual phenomenon that is disconnected from any specific religious connotations. It is marked by a perception of the connectedness of all things and an appreciation of the fragility of life. In the 30 years since the term was coined, astronauts have repeatedly reported experiencing the overview effect from the International Space Station.

Who needs to be an astronaut when we’ve got this late-stage capitalism and climate change?

The news cycle is its own kind of space flight. Thanks to the global mind network that is the internet, we have massive, collective, planetary realizations.

The overview effect is a lot to take in, this hot wet messy truth that we’re interconnected via biology, economics, the climate, and our supply chains.

It’s a sobering awakening, and a bit traumatic.

“I thought if I did everything right, I would be protected from unfair planetary inconveniences like pandemics or climate change or economic collapse? Oh you mean this education, this money, this fame, this security system, these political views, this cultural superiority, none of these things protect me from being a part of this universal system!?”

We get mortality checks on a global scale now.

But mortality checks come with generous, bittersweet gifts. Our biological, human fragility is our greatest joy. The vulnerability of our planetary interconnectedness is our greatest strength.

We are all just nonbinary bits of matter and goo, and we are mortal and fragile and pliable and adaptable and holy wow, does energy ever know how to efficiently use itself.

We must remember this: our actions are not our own. We’re driven by a massive host of influences, from biology to physics, from social psychology to economics, from astronomy to climatology, we are each the universe breathing itself through you.

It can be a lot to take in all at once.

This evolution is a lot for a lil’ bile duct to handle.

MY QUESTIONS FOR YOU

  • When in your life have you had to adapt to seemingly impossible situations?
  • How do you react to sudden change? Some common reactions are getting depressed, anxious, manic confused, or just going numb.
  • How do you self-medicate to deal with rapid change?
  • Can you think of examples of when your vulnerability and softness have been a superpower?

This story was originally published in The Afterglow, my now-retired members-only publication that launched in conjunction with my third book.

Ariel Meadow Stallings

Director of Publisher Growth @ Medium, but also an author, publisher of offbeatempire.com, and devotional dancer - because I contain multitudes, and so do you!