Expectations and Eclipses
Orderly systems are nice. Our daily schedules, our cyclical lifetime events, our consistently behaved peers – they offer us safety in their predictableness. With fundamentalist faith do we utilize the orderly; to offer two examples, setting up structured education systems and making probabilistically wise career choices. Even in ordinary routine, we value those people and institutions that are conducive to minimizing that which is unpleasant, unpredictable, and even unsafe. In short, we shun surprise.
But if order is the skeleton that gives our lives safety and structure, then surprise is the blood pumping throughout, the passion swelling within, which enriches and animates them with special experiences. There is something exciting about not knowing what comes next. Whether the literal roller coaster or just a healthy dose of normal surprises, the unexpected keeps things interesting, worthwhile to anticipate.
This past summer I found myself in a strange position of desiring surprise, but finding that there was part of my psyche that involuntarily wrecked any hope of such. I was set to witness the Great American Eclipse in only a few weeks and, as much as I tried to keep the experience something impossible to spoil in advance, something fresh and mysterious, I found myself looking up any and all articles on the subject, essentially forming in my mind a complete anticipatory picture of what was to come. As I embarked on the road trip to Tennessee to catch the moment, I already had a strong sense of what exactly would happen in the sky, how I would feel excited and nervous, what inspiration would run through my mind. These thoughts essentially ruled out making the moment something special.
Which was déjà vu, since I had experienced similarly two years prior in anticipation of a trip to the Swiss Alps. Despite desiring a pure, original reaction to my first glance at the mountains, I found myself already weeks in advance outlining in my mind exactly how I would feel and react. I concluded even before arriving in Switzerland that a sense of awe would overflow me, that I would be humbled at the sight of something so much grander and everlasting than I.
But I was wrong. Though I had stubbornly outlined what impression the Alps would induce, the actual moment felt quite different from what I had expected. Whereas I had predicted an inspired reflective moment, I found myself on that rainy day, as we broke through the dense clouds above Zermatt into the clear blue sky with snowcapped mountains all around, jumping in the cable car with excitement. I didn’t feel small compared to the mountains. Instead, I felt proud as part of an amazing species that successfully conquered nature and rose above it.
This was a doubled-edged success. True, I managed to have a fresh experience despite my overthinking. But this posed an updated problem that was manifest before my Tennessee road trip. I was now aware that my gut predictions were likely to miss the mark, and this knowledge made me overthink the future tenfold. Not only did I form an early picture of the future excitement that the disappearing sun would inspirit, but I also acknowledged for myself that other reactions were likely. I even instinctively attempted to gauge what those other possible reactions might look like.
Once again I turned out to have imperfect predictive powers. When the temperature dropped 15 degrees on that humid Tennessee summer afternoon, I felt an unexpected sense of spookiness in the air and in my bones. Despite the many eclipse photos that I had researched online, the sun’s corona around the moon and the darkened daytime sky actually looked quite different from even my most creative mental drawings. Even in my many-layered, meta, involuntary sabotage of all mystique, the Great American Eclipse truly caught me off guard.
Astronomy is wonderful in the immensity that it represents. Equally amazing is the high order of the cosmos and mankind’s corresponding high accuracy and precision of predicting their movements. Science can describe a solar eclipse down to the millisecond, longitude, and latitude. We know that Halley’s Comet is currently speeding away from the sun in the extremities of our solar system, and that it will soon turn back once again on its elliptical path to eventually greet our planet once more in July, 2061.
This knowledge is awesome. But, if I have learned anything from the recent solar eclipse, it is that even within the most structured systems we encounter in life, the future always remains somewhat of a surprise, somehow unexpected.
I believe that accepting this quality of life is a good thing. It’s this quality that turns standstill post-eclipse traffic in the Virginia Mountains, something predictably quite annoying, from an immense frustration into a surprisingly incredible sensation of belonging to something larger than yourself. It’s this quality that makes something as chaotic as a plot twist a very memorable feature of many modern great films. It’s this quality that explains how Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” both shocking and revolutionary upon their debuts, have become dominant pieces in the classical music repertoire. And this applies to life more broadly. While instinct suggests, for good reason, that a perfect mapping of the future is desirable, in reality it is more exciting when the future is largely unknown.
I know that I will be 66 years old during Halley’s Comet’s next appearance. I have known as much since my great-grandfather told this to me as a child. It is by a long shot the latest event which I have marked on my calendar. But will I witness the event alone? Will my future family join me? Where on this planet will we find ourselves on that day? What emotions will we feel inside? How will the 2061 sky look at that moment?
I am glad to say that I have no idea.