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The overview effect

Time for a bit of perspective.

Time for a bit of perspective.

Last month, I was stopped at a red light watching pedestrians stream by as another car waited impatiently on a side street to turn, nudging towards the intersection.

There were quite a few elderly people crossing in that way elderly people are often forced to traverse a busy street; like a hyena is stalking them, anxious of the dangers posed by aggressive or careless motorists when they lag behind the herd.

As I watched, a woman in her mid-40s passed in front of my bumper and something drew her attention to a slow-moving old gal chugging away next to her.

Perhaps the old lady was breathing heavily, or her walking cane had lost its rubber tip and was making a dragging noise on the asphalt. I couldn't hear, I had Boz Scaggs turned up to 11 in my car.

The younger woman literally stopped in the middle of the street and the old lady surged past her, shuffling towards the sanctuary of the pavement. The younger woman, now walking slowly behind her, shepherded her to safety.

The younger woman's unspoken message to the impatient driver waiting to turn was: "Do not beep this lady, don't try to squeeze past her before she's safe. I will be the last person off this road."

Okay, I'm assuming that was her message, because as soon as the old lady reached the footpath, the younger woman returned to her normal walking pace and blazed off. Nobody, especially the old lady, was any the wiser.

I sat in my car and thought about the sort of person who'd do that. Who instinctively reacted to protect a weaker stranger in a way that brought them no acknowledgment or thanks, nor the other person embarrassment or obligation. Her actions were designed to go unnoticed.

I had to fight the urge to drive ahead of the woman, park my car and get out to tell her she was my hero. But I didn't because, well, apparently men don't have heroes who are women, if you listen to some social commentators.

There's a short doco doing the rounds called Overview about the "Overview Effect". This is described as the "cognitive shift in awareness" that happens to astronauts after they see earth from outer space.

Viewing our globe from "without", astronauts are uniformly overwhelmed by the fragility of our planet; the fact that we're just a tiny blue-green spaceship floating in infinity and all that protects us from the cold annihilation of space us is a flimsy layer of atmosphere.

As the astronauts orbit, concepts of nationality and race dissolve, self-interest dies and they return to earth profoundly awed by how completely every species' fate on this planet is linked.

Somehow, I don't think I'd need to explain that notion to the woman who shadowed the old lady across the street.

As a culture, we've long been fascinated by the myth of superhumans and superheroes - people who can supposed save the planet single-handedly.

I reckon the only myth is that they can do it by themselves. Not that they exist, because last week I watched one in action. I suggest Boz Scaggs for her theme music.

49 comments

  • Great article. Not sure about Boz Scaggs though.

    Commenter
    Scaggless
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 07, 2013, 1:11AM
    • Don't forget Boz is the buzz

      Commenter
      Jeromey
      Date and time
      May 07, 2013, 9:26AM
  • "I sat in my car and thought about the sort of person who'd do that. Who instinctively reacted to protect a weaker stranger in a way that brought them no acknowledgment or thanks, nor the other person embarrassment or obligation."

    I reckon this happens way more than you'd think and, in most instances, it just doesn't register in the minds of those who witness it.

    Extending a little kindness or compassion without expecting some kind of reciprocal act is one of the easiest things in the world to do.

    Well it might depend on how one sees the world, but that's how I see it.

    Commenter
    hired goon
    Date and time
    May 07, 2013, 7:04AM
    • I sure don't feel that it happens more than you think.
      My workplace... most try to 'promote themselves' by degrading others.
      My walk to lunch... don't fall down, you'll be trampled.
      My commute... makes mad max seem tame.
      The parents of my kids peers... competitive much!?!?

      IMO, corporate greed has filtered down to individuals. Overcrowding is taking it's toll.
      Far too many people have have outsourced their ethics to the legal system. If something is legal then it must be ok!?!?! An ethical decision is totally off their radar.

      Where is the love?

      Commenter
      cranky
      Location
      pants
      Date and time
      May 07, 2013, 9:00AM
    • Great article and great comment.

      I think this happens alot. Many times we are going about our own business and don't think about what we do for others and what they do for us but it happens alot. It is most obvious when people get sick or have other serious problems and people rally around them.

      Giving one's time or showing consideration for others in this way is one of the most joyous things that a person can do - it helps others but helps yourself even more. A bit of acknowledgement goes a long way as well, as it is also a gift when another person acknowledges our efforts.

      Commenter
      Ant
      Date and time
      May 07, 2013, 11:31AM
    • Oh well, cranky pants, maybe you can get the ball rolling yourself and see if doing a few thoughtful acts here and there gives you a different perspective.

      Doing this worked for me.

      Commenter
      hired goon
      Date and time
      May 07, 2013, 4:40PM
    • Cranky - but then again, that's human nature. Even long before 'corporate greed' (or business) was a concept, humans have been shoving and pushing each other out of the way, simply to survive.

      Charity has its place, but so does being a jerk. Heck, there was a time in history when being too nice probably meant you wouldn't live long enough to pass down your genes.

      Granted, someone who is an actual, genuine nice person probably will keep performing acts of charity without caring a whiff about how bad the rest of the world is.

      Commenter
      Bob
      Date and time
      May 07, 2013, 4:55PM
    • I agree with you, hiredgoon (I usually do, you're one of my favourite commenters). I try to do stuff like this a lot of the time, even though I'm sure the people I encounter wouldn't like me anyway. I think a lot of people do things like this and it has nothing to do with transcendence. Sure, I am in 'awe' of the world, but I don't think it's the overview effect at play here at all. Just awareness of the people around us.

      Commenter
      Humbrella
      Location
      the dollhouse
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 12:04AM
  • Thanks for writing about this Sam - what a lovely way to start the week. Good on you! Good on her!

    Commenter
    Ellie
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    May 07, 2013, 7:21AM
    • Second Elli

      Commenter
      Fluellen
      Location
      Pilbara
      Date and time
      May 07, 2013, 9:31AM

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