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COLUMN: What the eclipse reveals about us

By: Matt Cavanaugh
August 20, 2017 Updated: August 20, 2017 at 4:30 am
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Tomorrow, just before noon, the sun will disappear.

Well, almost. Locally, the partial solar eclipse begins at 10:23 a.m.; at the 11:47 a.m. peak, the moon will cover 91 percent of the sun; and the shadowy show should end at 1:15 p.m. Unless you're a stargazer or a scientist, you probably weren't expecting nature's jaw-dropping three-hour intervention on an otherwise unremarkable Monday. But watching this eclipse gives us a unique opportunity to relearn something important about ourselves.

That's because a solar eclipse is a "reversal of the normal circumstances of the world and life," in the words of Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and a veteran observer of 14 such eclipses. Of course, external events that upend our lives are actually much more common than solar eclipses. People often experience their own personal eclipses; harsh setbacks, like losing a job. And when these hardships happen, it's normal to pause and reflect.

This instinct for reflection is especially powerful in close proximity to death, the ultimate "reversal." Long ago, according to Krupp, our ancestors took eclipses as "bad news," that the darkening sky meant "the whole cosmos (was) under threat." Similarly, death, whether it comes for you or someone close to you, seems the same way - darkness that smothers the light.

Our family feels that right now. My wife's godmother has surgery soon, in which her heart will be disconnected from her body for about 90 minutes. This unexpected procedure really has only two outcomes, so we'll skip the downside and focus instead on the upside of surviving such a surgery.

There's real good in approaching, then avoiding, death. In seeing the dark, and coming back to the light.

The man who revolutionized the investment industry, saving a lot of money for average folks, Jack Bogle of Vanguard, had a heart attack when he was 31 and then a transplant at 65. He's almost 88 now, and finds himself "the most blessed man in the United States of America," because he knows much more than the value of a dollar - he knows the value of a minute.

Winston Churchill, of his time as a lieutenant, wrote "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." While that sounds like a boy's boast, from my own experiences, I can amplify the sentiment. Not just for the mere momentary excitement, which is true - but even more so for the long-term impact.

An Army officer, having lived beyond moments in combat I thought I wouldn't, has produced my life's greatest unintended benefit. Some call this post-traumatic growth. While it's true I carry a cloud that occasionally brings on dark periods, they always blow over quickly - and what's left is this clear-sky sense that the only things that really matter are time and people. I think the closer we come to the real end, the sharper our aim on these priorities. Minutes matter more.

If lives were infinite, we wouldn't feel that subtle, positive pressure to spend more time with those we love. Life itself is a fatal condition, and if we remember this fact it is precisely what drives us to phone a friend, hold a hand, forget the office, and always, always say "I love you."

Events beyond our control like eclipses, surgery, and combat usually have a physical impact. We'll have to wear special glasses to watch the darkened sun. When our friend's eyes open in the recovery room, she'll be left with bruises. At war, I got roughed up.

But pain and eclipses pass. And when they do, they leave us mentally, psychologically, and spiritually charged with greater motivation to make even the seconds with our loved ones count.

I'll prove it. During the eclipse, the best evidence for this won't be in the sky. It'll be standing right next to you; the person or people you chose to spend this celestial event with. Or, equally likely, the ones you wish you could've been with. Then afterwards, you'll see it in the hundreds of millions of Americans that digitally share their experience with those they treasure most.

In this way, an eclipse really isn't all that rare. Like a lot of dark things, it's what we make of it, together, that brings back the light.


Maj. ML Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army strategist and a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point and looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or any agency of the U.S. government.

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