Chasing Totality, Finding Wonder in the Moment

Composite image of the eclipse phases. Photo credit: Abed Ismail

In our Artisans of Peace program, we support peacebuilders by creating nonrivalrous spaces that foster curiosity, wonder, collaboration, and creative solutions. When we clear away our distractions and experience the present moment in a safe and supported way, it allows for sparks of inspiration and revelation that shift our perceptions and free us to approach things in a new way.

I recently had my own experience of being present in the moment, shedding expectations, and asking myself some hard questions that taught me some powerful lessons I won’t soon forget.

 

Preparing for the Path of Totality

In 2017 my husband Keith and I camped out with 2 other couples in Wyoming to watch the solar eclipse. No one was as excited about the eclipse as I was, but they pulled together to make it happen for me. We camped on the ranch of one couple which is in a gorgeous mountain glen. It’s ideal for cows but lacking in all amenities. So, the other couple contributed their camper and portable toilet. We stocked up on groceries and drove from Heber City, Utah, the day before the big event, 6 pairs of eclipse glasses that I had ordered packed and ready.

I knew that the ranch wasn’t precisely in the path of totality. It was off by about 20 miles, which didn’t matter much to my eclipse companions. I don’t mean to say that the experience wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t total. Sure, the sky darkened, but not so much that we could see stars. The temperature dropped some, and the wind picked up, and the sun was blocked nearly all the way. But that sliver of sun left me disappointed. I felt I had missed out on a rare experience that people only 20 miles away were having. When we got back to civilization, I looked up when the next solar eclipse would be in North America, and I got lucky – in only 7 years, on April 8, 2024, another path of totality would cut across a huge swath of the US. So began my determination to make sure nothing would block my experience of total totality. 

That’s why in March 2023, I booked an eclipse tour led by an astronomer to view totality in Austin, Texas. What could go wrong this time? An astronomer was making sure we were in the right place for clear skies at the right time. But a year later, the forecast for the week of April 8 in Austin was horizon to horizon cloud cover. I was anxious.

When we clear away our distractions and experience the present moment in a safe and supported way, it allows for sparks of inspiration and revelation that shift our perceptions and free us to approach things in a new way. 
A solar eclipse viewed through solar eclipse glasses.
Mysteries in the Dark

The tour included two days of lectures by astronomers, cosmologists, astronauts, and NASA executives to round out our eclipse experience. I ate it up! These were people devoted to learning everything they could about the cosmos and our place in it. As I tried not to worry that my clever planning was going to lead to another disappointing eclipse experience, I sat down for lunch at a table with only 2 other people at it. We were soon joined by a man wearing a badge that said “Lecturer” below his name. I thought, here’s a bit of luck anyway – I’ll get to meet one of the scientists. 

The man turned out to be Nicholas B. Suntzeff who was on the team of scientists that discovered dark energy. Yes, dark energy – the discovery that won the Nobel prize for physics in 2011. Dr. Suntzeff explained that dark energy was the name his team gave to the mysterious force that is causing the expansion of the universe. Galaxies are moving further and further apart, and nothing in the known, observable universe can explain that. It was his meticulous measurements and observations that proved the galaxies were indeed moving away from each other. 

I’ve read about this stuff and eagerly asked my question, “When you say ‘dark,’ do you mean it’s not detectable by the instruments we have now, or we just don’t quite know what kind of energy it is?” 

“It’s worse than that,” he said. “We came up with the name dark energy to indicate that what we are observing about the expansion of the universe requires that something is driving the expansion, but what that is is a mystery and will probably remain a mystery.” 

Remain a mystery, forever? I was suddenly confronted with a deeply held belief that I was not truly aware of till that moment: that what are mysteries to us now will eventually yield their secrets to scientific inquiry. But a mystery, forever? 

I was feeling existential vertigo, and then he added this zinger that toppled me over: “We already have evidence that disproves the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe.” Wait, what? 

“What proof?” I asked. 

“Well, the temperature needed for the Big Bang just isn’t possible to achieve….” I’m not going to pretend I understood what he said. What my liberal arts brain could grasp was that the physics of it all seems to point to something called the “inflationary universe” that pre-existed the Big Bang.  

“But doesn’t that just beg the question of the origin of the inflationary universe? Where did that come from?” 

He shrugged and said, “We probably won’t find an answer to that one. Because of the expansion of the universe, we cannot observe things that have moved too far away from us. And in the future, billions of years from now, the universe will have expanded so much that all an observer from Earth would  be able to see is our own galaxy. No other stars and no way of knowing that those stars ever existed.”

Now I was in a full-blown existential crisis. What I had been unconscious of until that moment at a lunch table in a ballroom at a Hyatt hotel in Austin, Texas, was just how much I had assumed that all unknowables would eventually yield to the rigors of science. That science would advance enough that all the mysteries would be, dare I say it, totally revealed to us. 

Of course, next I teetered right over into a faith crisis because, contrary to popular opinion, faith and science are not opposites at all, but inextricably linked. What kind of God, I wondered, had created us with a quest to know the unknowable and then plunk us down in a universe that was intrinsically unknowable? My anxiety about whether the skies would clear in time for me to fulfill my quest for totality was now threaded through with the fear that my faith had finally met its match.

Maybe everything wonderful and worth knowing was happening each moment every day, not twenty miles away or in Austin or in a galaxy far, far away, but right in front of me right now. No special glasses needed.

Wonder in the Moment

The next day, just before we wrapped up with a magic show from a physicist (I kid you not), the last speaker said something like this, “Now that you know all the science about eclipses, I want you to pause during totality tomorrow and take a deep breath. Look around at all the people who are with you for this unique astrological event because this moment will never happen again – not this eclipse and not the gathering of this group of people in this place. Marvel at the wonder of what is happening in the sky and in our midst. Enjoy totality, everyone!”

We were able to enjoy totality. Though the sky did not completely clear, we caught glimpses of the solar eclipse through breaks in the clouds that were moving fast, almost like someone was opening and closing blinds. Each time the clouds moved away, we cheered in awe, wonder, and gratitude because we were being given enough. 

Was the universe letting me know that I don’t need to chase totality to have the experience of a lifetime? Maybe everything wonderful and worth knowing was happening each moment every day, not twenty miles away or in Austin or in a galaxy far, far away, but right in front of me right now. No special glasses needed.

If you enjoyed this reflection, please consider these other blog posts:

Want to learn more about how unRival Network and the Artisans of Peace program are disrupting rivalry and advancing the cause of justice and peace? Click here to access our free resource, Peace is Possible.

Hold onto hope with us.


When we resist rivalry together, there is hope for peace.

By contributing as little as $25, you join us in supporting peacebuilders who are bringing creative solutions to the world’s toughest problems. Your donation funds leadership formation programs, research, and resources for those resisting rivalry with you.