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The Overview Effect

If nothing matters, then everything does: A six-month space exploration through the depths of depression and back.

I remember sitting in Paris with a Filipino nun at a cafe patio outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame after 8 a.m. mass, enjoying a croissant and an espresso, chatting mostly in broken Spanish about god and colonialism. It was August. A Sunday. Pigeons clucked and hounded us for crumbs.

I was alone — somewhere near the beginning of a 23-day mad-dash through 10 cities on 3 continents. She asked if I had stopped believing in god, why would I go to mass?

I’d woken up at 6 a.m. that morning, the overcast light of the sunrise enticed me to lace up my sneakers and go for a run. I hadn’t so much journeyed to the Cathedral so much as I just happened to pass it by on my way to nowhere in particular. I walked inside because, well, it’s just what you do. It just so happened that mass started in five minutes.

“I was in the neighborhood. I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to do it again. Belief or not, it is still my culture (I grew up Catholic on both sides of my family, with a whole contingent of French immigrants on one of them), and it felt right.”

I felt at home in a house of worship for the first time in half my life. I felt at home in Paris, alone, talking to a total stranger from half the world away, with whom we shared little in common except a current coordinate in space-time and a taste for soft French bread. It was there I began to see how singular every human’s journey could be, and how small concerns like nationality, career and religion can seem. We are all these things, yet we are none of them. Life out of context is still life itself.

She left before I did. I watched the sun peek out from behind the clouds, and the misty Paris morning fill in with vibrant color, sound and warmth. The pigeons and people cluttered the streets. Selfie sticks like swords in Lord of the Rings battle scenes.

Some people accumulate things. I accumulate places. I travel a lot. Often to new places. Often alone. Some people find that profoundly lonely — I find it profoundly exciting. I like exploring and discovering.

One of the rare, cool treasures of this world is finding yourself in a city you’ve never been before. Gazing around in wide-eyed wonder. Drinking in the sounds and scents. Conversing with strangers who’ll soon become friends. It’s an adrenaline rush for me.

I could wander this Earth forever. Writing things. Learning languages. I’d hike through parks and eat my way through town. The grand cosmic joke is how limited we are by our lifetimes, and how large our planet is by comparison. There’s so much to see and experience. So many people to meet and stories to tell. And so I accumulate places. Places and people are possibilities. I’m open to them.

Over the next two weeks, I’d visit Marseille, Barcelona, Tangier, Lisbon, Porto, Madrid and London. Traveling mostly by train. Meeting up with people I’d only previously known from Medium. “This world is small,” I’d think. Over and over. Leave it to my sister, to whom I’d been texting my fits of existentialism, to drop this nugget in the chat window: “The farther we go in the world, the smaller it becomes.” My sister said that. Not me.

There were times along that trip where I felt as though I’d blacked out: I was tapping into the infinite. I was pulling the lever of the slot machine and coming up triple-7 over, and over, and over. And with every new hashtag-life-goals checked off my hashtag-bucket-list, and with each new realization that I’d managed in less than six years to go from sleeping in a rental Jeep in a Wal-Mart parking lot, $57K in debt and without health insurance, to a six-figure-netting voice of a global brand, popular essayist, and quiet wordsmith on board the most sweetly subversive political movement of the 21st Century, I stared down from the lofty perch I unwittingly found myself atop — far beyond the expectations I’d ever set for myself, or expectations that were set for me, career-wise, having literally lapped the field from which I’d sprouted, a world-trekking, flame-throwing quasi-philosopher with one of the world’s wildest resumes and weirdest Rolodex — and asked, “So, what now?” And, when I couldn’t find a suitable answer, and scrolled my Facebook feed and saw pics of friends in love and their seemingly happy families, asked instead, “What’s the point?” Not so succinctly.

Sometime around my eighth glass of wine on a rooftop in Porto, I penned this:

This life is largely hell. We’re born into this world, without our consent, and we are subjected to an endless parade of loss and suffering. Everything we love will die. Everything we hope for refuses to materialize. All we can do is try and transcend that, and hope our efforts are “enough.” I love what I do. I love my life. I feel like my heart’s in the right place. But it is a lonely, and mostly aimless journey. It exists outside the realm of “normal,” and outside the realm of possibility. I struggle to find people who understand it. I struggle to be a decent friend, worker and citizen. I struggle to feel like what I do makes any damned bit of difference. It hurts. It’s never enough.

I want something else. I want peace. I want hope. I want love. I want to feel like I’m not sprinting just to keep up, like I don’t need to be exceptional to be likable, like I can just exist and feel ecstatic for my own existence’s sake. And yet the only way I can do it is take it bigger — whatever that means anymore.

I am afraid I will die alone, or never find lasting love, or never find somewhere to belong. I am afraid I will never find someone I feel comfortable sharing all this with. And so: IG confessionals.

I should be okay. I’ve had it easy(-ish). I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to. But I’ve raced to the top of a mountain no one else is climbing, and screaming “did you see THAT?” to absolutely no one. People love *reading* vulnerability. No one wants to really know it.

I will never be the father or husband my parents or society want me to be. I’m too “weird.” I question too much. I’m always asking all the questions that don’t need answering. I’m always oversharing. I’m always too “unstable.” All I have is running, writing, and the thousands of miles left untraveled and words left unwritten. It’s all so much. It’s still not enough. And I wonder when it ever will be.

I came home. Tired. Nerves frayed and frazzled. And I crashed as hard as I ever had, at any point in my (to date) 36 seasons on-air as more slapstick comedy than award-winning drama. And I sank into existential nihilism.

“The world seems so small now. It’s so boring. There’s so much else out there. And yet I just want to rest, and not feel compelled to explore it all to find adventure and peace.”

I began to get angry and resentful: at America for being such a needlessly Puritanical and Draconian society, at other people for conflicting with each other over the smallest of things, at the “conscious community” for constantly selling a bill of goods that — although allegedly rooted in the “source” and the “universe” — still wasn’t thinking big enough, or taking context into account. “No one is 100% responsible for their own happiness,” I would posit. And then I would curse the social justice activists who would yell loudly and miserably into the abyss, who didn’t seem as though anything other than a perfectly Egalitarian society across race, gender, sexuality, religion, class and upbringing would allow them to crack to a smile. “Why can’t people just relax, and enjoy a sunrise or a croissant?” I would say, loathing the other end of the binary that seemed to assume that everything is context and happiness is a product of it.

Life is not binary. Happiness is not binary. I concluded that I think we are responsible for own happiness: 51% of it. Enough to be a majority, yet not enough to pass a bill without a filibuster.

With everything feeling so small, I again jetted to San Francisco over Thanksgiving break. There, I roundly whipped myself back into tornado form, just enough to scare off the good friend who guided me around in Paris in the first place, and then just enough to fall in lust with an old friend and co-worker I hadn’t seen in over half a decade.

Private wine tastings in Napa and Sonoma, Russian River beers by the gallon, cheese plates and modern art museums, riding scooters and hiking beaches, legalized THC and experiments with DMT. Bourgeois resorts, top-shelf scotch and the Golden Gate bridge. Food. Family. Friends old and new. The question would come up again: I’ve made it, right?

No. What I had then was an optimized life. I’d spend my time and money doing almost entirely what I wanted to do, and almost nothing I don’t. But that’s only one piece of becoming the self you want to be. There’s another piece. It sucks more. It involves doing what you don’t want to do. The hard stuff. The stuff that strengthens you.

I had capped out. I could do no more. I could enjoy no more. I hyper-maximized my every moment, running up the score in games I knew I could win, while struggling to take the field against my toughest opponent: myself. To find what I need to work through instead of around, I went inward, to understand the technicolor tales of surrealist cacophony.

I stockpiled some edibles and psychedelic mushrooms into my suitcase and headed home. I was bored, restless, searching. For what?

I gobbled mushrooms and began to think. I’d think about life — what it means, how to spend it — and fall short of being able to understand it. There is no goal. There is no final level. There is no meaning. We are tiny genetic marvels and mathematical miracles haphazardly scattered around a speck of space-dust.

I’d think about culture and context — how it shapes us, how we shape it — and often wondered if we are doomed, or if we are ever able to truly extricate ourselves from that which contains us. Perhaps we are all marks or tiny devils.

I began to absorb so much information from the world around me, and from truths found by looking inward and reading, I’d perhaps come to the greatest truth about myself. I will share that with you now, since you’re here.

“I am an approval-seeking missile. It underpins everything I do.” It leads me to stretch myself too thin, latch onto people I shouldn’t, prevent me from standing up for myself, stop me from putting myself in situations where I could be rejected, truthfully expressing what I want (or even thinking about it). This course, has its benefits: I have great relationships with a wide swath of people. I am very productive. I am very likable. I can consider myself cultured, agreeable, curious and come through for people at the drop of a hat.

But I wouldn’t be telling you this if this was a good thing. This is, of course, a very bad thing. It leads me to sacrifice my core values (candidly, I didn’t know my core values until this year), fall into codependent relationships with people who need and use me (or vice versa), say “yes” to things I don’t want to, and share my innermost demons publicly instead of to people close to me.

I thought about how to jump off that pathological treadmill, as the world now seemed smaller and farther away than it ever had. And then it went dark.

I started thinking about what was left to look forward to. And the answer I kept returning to is, succinctly, nothing. My goals, to the extent that I had them to begin with, didn’t excite me much anymore. I’m not motivated by money, or a bigger house. I didn’t anticipate finding lasting love or making a family. I don’t see any mind-blowing accomplishments waiting on the horizon. I didn’t think I was going to solve the puzzle by working harder or being more productive, when I was already always “on.” And, of course, everything nationally and globally was — and is still — turning into a grease-fire, and within a half-decade or less we’ll be violently engulfed in a wave of super-fascism, and while we all kill each other over food and medicine, the elite will laugh from their fortified compounds as they aim at colonizing Mars. And then climate change will surely kill what evil can’t.

I had done what I set out to do. I wrote things. People read them. I ran a marathon. I traveled. I made some money. I sang songs. I ate good food and listened to great music. I stayed out way too late. Had my heart stolen and broken and felt alive the whole time. Even became a cat person.

But, like, what else? I don’t anticipate being an uncle. My parents will die. I’ll get old and weird and lonely, and my body and mind will break down. Society will fray and burn. I doubt any Buffalo sports team will win a title. Then, death. God, the U-Shaped correlation curve between perspective and happiness. If I had a stack of papers to throw into the air at the time, I would have.

We spend so much time on this rock, trying to fit into a mold. A societal mold. Or a familial mold. Or a professional mold. Of what success and happiness should look like.

That if we only do x, y and z, we will receive a, b and c. That effort is wasted energy. I’ve returned today from the mountain top to tell you what else to do. I went there because I know I’ve spent my fair share of energy wasted.

No one — not your family, not your boss, not your lover, not your friends, not society — can define your life for you. Only you can. Only you can synthesize what’s around into something that brings you joy, peace, health and prosperity. You do so by finding your deepest truths, then unearthing your root pathology and sandblasting it so you can eliminate what holds you back from living your truth.

For the longest time, I didn’t know my truths. Then I thought I did, and it turned out I was wrong, because after dislodging my root pathology, I began to realize most things I thought I knew about myself were lies grafted onto me to mask my root pathology. Suddenly, things began to make sense.

I consider the things I’ve done, the things that have happened to me, the things I’ve learned, to be gifts. They have given me all the information and emotion I have needed to be here, now. And here, now, is pretty good.

Health, wealth and happiness aren’t one-size-fits-all, because your truth isn’t. Your truth and mine could be quite different. But I find once you discover yours, and once you discover what’s blocking you from living it, you can reenter your life freer, happier and fuller than you were before you left.

Life gives you gifts with every breath you take. If you’re living your truth, all you have to do is accept them. And when you do, it won’t matter what else you get.

Sometime around the Super Bowl, 2019, I zoomed about as far out as I could, having now hit on infinity long past the time the dealer ran out of cards to give, still wondering how none of them added up to Blackjack. I looked back at the world from which I’d now felt completely untethered. I thought about what I was fighting for. What I was struggling for. What I was asking for. What I was working for. And this is what I said:

Life is objectively meaningless. There’s nothing out there. No “calling.” No god. No higher power. We are not living in a simulation, and none of this is preordained. It’s just space-time, energy, and the empty abyss of the cosmos. Here we are, stranded on a rock in the middle of nowhere, paying the electric bill if we can afford to. And yet, that is every reason why it’s important to fight for things that do matter. Ideas matter — equality, justice, wisdom, peace, happiness, freedom, dignity.

They matter because humanity has shown, time and again, that these are ideals worth striving for and, even better, momentarily achievable. The entire world isn’t starving, burning, or drowning all the time, everywhere. These ideas are worthwhile because, although they’re human constructs, they’re guide-stars that propel us all toward a world that’s less meaningless. They’re places to find purpose. It’s about the work. It’s about the contribution. It is, ultimately, about the preservation of the species, and about adding value, in ways that do the most good with the least harm.

Perhaps, when searching for meaning, we are asking ourselves the wrong question. Instead of “what’s the meaning of this,” we should ask “what’s the value of this?” That’s calculable: good-minus-harm. It may not quench our desire for a divine creator or a lifelong pursuit, but it’s a start.

I began to understand the value of viewing life from such a widescreen perspective: I began to realize that although everything we value is cosmically small, and life is cosmically short, it is this sort of infinitesimal nature within all of us and each of us that makes it all worth fighting for. Maybe we can’t be 100% responsible for our own happiness. Maybe we won’t grow up to be President, or a millionaire. Maybe we won’t be in the top 1% in any of our given professions. Maybe we won’t get married. Maybe we won’t procreate. And yet, in service of a greater good, or a set of ideals, there is still much to tend to in our own gardens — no matter how little acreage they take up in the end. If the land is arable, nurture it. The worst that can happen is it bears fruit. Maybe that sounds quaint. I don’t think it does. I think it’s all that matters anymore.

At that moment — and that moment was recent — I watched my entire life fold in upon itself. I’d reached a kind of singularity, where my various creative and professional and personal pursuits all combined in one extraordinary series of moments that is so hard to quantify or describe succinctly that I won’t. Just know that there’s been an extraordinary exploration into just how far my passions have taken me. And that I’ve been emotionally and mentally overwhelmed. Excited beyond belief. It’s all happening now. And it all came so close to never happening. I’ll explore just a taste of it here.

It was after midnight, Austin time. A co-worker and I, and a friendly stray we picked up, left an exclusive SXSW party, and walked six bustling blocks to a local music venue I’d played at before, back in my past life as a traveling troubadour, weaving through waves of woozy people.

I had a badge. They didn’t. And so I did as I always do. I told them to get out their IDs, I flashed my badge at the door one more time, and casually said “they’re cool. They’re with me” with all the confidence of someone who was just drunk-texting about arranging a call Monday to discuss writing some Green New Deal messaging, because I had literally just drunk-texted about arranging a call on Monday to discuss writing some Green New Deal messaging. We walked right through.

And at 1 a.m., after having nudged my way toward the Green Room to get a soundbite from the artist, Har Mar Superstar — a man who couldn’t look less like he sounds — took the stage and blew the doors off the venue. The man preened, triumphantly, and for 30 blistering minutes, he sang to scrape the skies, soaring and searing.

I thought to myself: It is never too late to be who you were meant to become. You are never too weird, or too quirky. You can never dream too big, or think too big, or try too hard. No matter how big a swing you take, no matter how trite your goals may seem to anybody but you. And if you stay true to yourself, do what you love, talk — and be kind — to everyone, and consistently impress people, doors will open up for you. One day you might find yourself on a stage, in the spotlight, fist in the air, victorious.

I felt that night in my soul, man. And then it was gone. I gave a soliloquy in my Uber home. “I have no idea how I’m going to process all this.” I’d returned to Earth. There are now new horizons. Bigger things and better times ahead. I want so badly to tell you all of it. But I’ll need a beat to let it all soak in.

And that’s when it hit me: that this moment, deep into the night, watching a preposterously dressed 70s porn-stache sing like Freddie Mercury meets Wilson Pickett, at a mid-sized venue in my adopted hometown of Austin, closing SXSW, was something else: These were my final precious moments of anonymity. My first quiet moments back on Earth, before stepping out of my spacecraft to be greeted by throngs of people wondering how it all went. This moment was, as Churchill famously said, the end of my beginning. The mission may have ended, but the ride’s just starting.

It’s rumored an astronaut once looked out the window of his spacecraft, peered down towards Earth, and said, “every war and injustice, every law passed and fortune made, the whole of human history and progress, all right there, and if I cover it up with my hands, it’s all gone. Really puts things into perspective.” This phenomenon, I’ve found out, (thanks “One Strange Rock” on Netflix) has a name: The Overview Effect. Per Wikipedia:

The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from outer space.

It is the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.

It took me six months to fully grasp what I’d been experiencing: a profound cognitive shift, an expansion of the mind and of experience, of first feeling the abyss and the void, the meaninglessness and quaintness of it all, before understanding that if this is all that matters, then this is all that matters. From detached apathy to untethered empathy.

Maybe we were meant to die. Maybe life is merely an interlude within the larger narrative of universal order. Maybe humanity is a bug the cosmos will fix in the next round of beta-testing. Maybe all this means nothing, but if nothing matters, then everything does.

If so, perhaps it would help to live a life of dignity, empathy, humility, curiosity and integrity. We could laugh more, learn more, feel more, aid more. Do more good than harm. We are stewards of this spaceship Earth. We should take care of it. And each other. And maybe enjoy the ride a little more. It could end at any time.

I believe it’s important to broaden our horizons. To see life from as many angles as possible. To experience it with a beginner’s mind. To take ourselves out of context and ever-so-slightly change the fabric of ourselves and of the places we go. To meet new people. To make new memories.

My world is much different now than it was the last time I was here. Much has changed. And I imagine when I retrace the places that shaped me, I’ll see them and feel differently. Everywhere we go shapes us a little bit, and so we shape it. I love the way the last six months have helped shape me, and all the places I’ve been since. Here’s to new memories and new horizons, and to wherever they take us next.

Written by

Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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