Regaining a Proper Perspective

It was December of 1968, a year marked by violence, warfare, and the dashing of hope emanating from the double blow of the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The rise in power of the Soviet Union seem to be an unstoppable juggernaut threatening what was left of the peace and stability of Vietnam-era America.

To combat this growing American malaise, NASA was tasked with providing a much-need boost to the American psyche by taking man to the Moon for the first time, even if the lunar landing would have to wait until the next year. Despite the consistent failures of the earliest Apollo missions, including the death of three astronauts during a test of Apollo 1, Apollo 8 would be moving up its launch schedule and tasked with beating the Soviets by orbiting Americans around the Moon.

Many historians would later say that the incredible investment in the Apollo program, driven by the “space race” front of the Cold War with Soviet Russia, was nothing more than a lapse in perspective by successive US administrations under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. And so ironically, it was perspective that was the greatest achievement of the Apollo 8 mission.

It was 50 years ago next week that Apollo 8 blasted off from Cape Canaveral. And it was not completely coincidental that on Christmas Eve of 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft took human beings around the dark side of the Moon for the first time. And when they came around the other side, for the first time in human history we looked back on our home planet Earth from a distance further than a close orbit, which isn’t much of a different view than flying at a high altitude. The Earth was so far away that Astronaut Jim Lovell (who would become much more famous a few years later for commanding the successful return of Apollo 13 after a life-threatening explosion on the spacecraft) put up his thumb, squinted with one eye shut and completely hid our entire planet and its then two billion human inhabitants, blocked from view behind the tip of his thumb.

One out of four of those two billion inhabitants heard the live broadcast of those astronauts on that Christmas Eve. The only words they could find fitting for the awesome sight were spoken by reading from the first words of the book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth…”

When they returned home a few days later, they were able to share the picture of that same Earth, “rising” above the lunar horizon. Later dubbed “Earthrise,” that photograph become one of the most viewed images in human history. The new perspective of our home planet from such a distance, in all of its beauty and majesty–and yet all also its smallness–renewed hope for many in a world where sadness, strife, and loss seemed to be closing in around everyone. It was a new view which offered a new perspective.

So maybe now, 50 years later almost to the day, it’s time for us to regain some new perspective. In a world where anxiety and insecurity have become the norm rather than the exception, where all of the worst news of the entire planet is funneled directly into these little machines we hold close in our hands and near to our hearts, maybe it’s time for us to gain a new perspective as well.

When I was a camp director, it was a frequent occurrence that when strife arose in the community–whether from the need for firing of a staff member or the bad behavior of a camper–it easily became the dominant mood-driver that would permeate the community. When I sensed that this was happening and that a more well-rounded perspective was being lost, I would on occasion take the staff through a little exercise. At one of the daily staff meetings, I would ask them to sit or lie quietly with their eyes closed. I would ask them to imagine that they were able to fly above the camp. From a height of even just a few hundred feet above the ground, their own particular cabin would look relatively small and it would seem that whatever was happening there was one small part of what was happening around the whole camp. Inviting them to ascend to 1,000 feet they would see that what was happening in camp was just a small part of what was happening in our general area, with things happening in town, on the roads, and the dozens of homes they could see from that vantage point. One final invitation to ascend to 20,000 feet, an altitude most could imagine since they had taken trips on airplanes. From this perspective, whatever difficulties happening on camp as a whole would be very hard to detect amidst the several hundred square miles that could be seen with a single glance.

50 years ago when the men of Apollo 8 glanced at this magnificent “Oasis of life among the stars,” seen small enough to appear to be as “large” as a marble (and small enough to hide behind your thumb) that view gave them–and consequently the rest of humanity–a far different perspective. A perspective where the trials and tribulations which, when seen much more closely appear to be overwhelming, are now seen more accurately in their true setting in the grand scheme of life. Yet there’s one more perspective-providing element we need to consider.

At the ceremony honoring the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, held last night at Washington DC’s National Cathedral, one of the speakers ended his reflection on the new perspective which the astronauts brought back home with them of life on Earth. He ended his reflection by singing the Protestant children’s classic, “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands.” As simplistic as a sentiment of that song may seem, it really is true: God truly does have all of us–”the little bitty babies… you and me brother and sister” and, yes, the whole world, all of it, is in His hands.

In our own day and age, with our own challenges and worries, those from near and far away can seem so close, I believe it’s time for us to regain perspective. It begins with a view of creation just as God views it, which is much more broad and varied than any of our particular circumstances would lead us to believe. Add to that the option to see that entire creation as being in His hands, and we have all we need to have “peace on Earth.” We may not be able to bring peace to everyone and every situation around us, but we can have peace in the one place we are able to bring it: into our very hearts. Actually, if we’re going to bring peace–any peace–to anyone around us, it will be because we have recovered peace within–in the universe inside of each of us.

May all of us in this season of “peace on Earth and good will towards men” find that perspective and do our part to bring that perspective back to a world in such great need of the peace that can come to it, even through us. It just takes looking at the world from a whole new perspective.