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What I Learned From Missing the Solar Eclipse

Life's biggest lessons can come from disappointments.

Key points

  • Our inner narratives define our experience.
  • We can’t expect external factors to fix our internal experience.
  • Negative visualization can deepen our appreciation.
  • Focusing on small positive experiences has huge benefits.

I felt a deep sense of loss after missing my chance to witness the total solar eclipse this past April. Several months prior, my husband and I were already planning our road trip to the path of totality, looking up local parks and restaurants and getting eclipse glasses. But when the big day finally arrived, an unyielding shroud of gray concealed our view of the celestial event.

On the drive back, we listened to the accounts of more fortunate eclipse-goers on the radio. Stumbling to describe their enthrallment, they invariably used words like awesome, amazing, even life-changing. But the longer I listened, the deeper I felt the singe of disappointment made worse by my jealousy of everyone who had seen it.

In the following days, I couldn’t shake my mournfulness. It didn’t help that only a couple of weeks earlier, I had started crawling out of the dark hole of seasonal depression where everything felt flat and devoid of seasoning.

I had looked forward to the eclipse in the hope that it would somehow take me outside of myself and make my fears and anxieties seem puny. I wanted to feel the way I feel when I’m swimming in the ocean—small, but not insignificant—and for a few moments, reassured by what feels like a great cosmic secret: It’s all OK.

In the tangle of my emotions, I found a thread I couldn’t easily extricate: shame. I was ashamed of feeling a sense of loss for missing the eclipse when I am acutely aware of the suffering people endure every day: my beloved friend is losing his ability to walk, a close relative spends most of her days receiving radiation treatments and recuperating from them, and another friend has to watch her father fade away as he grapples with a terminal illness.

I felt ashamed for mourning the fact that some clouds obscured my view of the eclipse because I, too, have faced hardships: I survived a war as a child. I was wounded in an explosion that left shrapnel in my head and legs. I had to escape my country and leave my family at 16. I lost my mother to a sudden illness.

I had a humbling revelation that perhaps because I had experienced such loss and because I was struggling with depression and felt I needed some cosmic inspiration to pull me out of it, I fell into the trap of thinking that I was owed this experience.

But, of course, life doesn't owe me anything. Bartering and complaining about what’s fair has no effect on what happens. And while on the subject of fairness, I decided to stop looking outward and turn my gaze inward.

We tend to forget that the number of difficult or even disastrous experiences that don’t happen on any given day is truly endless. Since I focused so much on what I had lost by missing out on the eclipse that day, it seemed only fair that I briefly contemplate a few potential negative experiences I had missed out on as well.

This is where I can let my anxious mind really gallop: We didn’t get into an accident on the way there, our car didn’t randomly burst into flames, my husband didn’t slump over the wheel from a sudden brain aneurysm, I didn’t have a random allergic reaction to some ingredient in my pasta that landed me in the emergency room, and our home didn’t burn to ashes while we were away.

If I really want to challenge myself, I can continue down this line of thinking and look at some of the most traumatic events in my life and realize how fortunate I am: I wasn’t killed during the war, I wasn’t orphaned, I didn’t lose my legs, and I had my mother for 33 years when it could have been even less.

Contemplating those possibilities for a few brief moments challenges my singular perspective and encourages a deeper appreciation for my current circumstances. The abiding truth—which I can only see once I swat away the intricate web of negative thoughts and emotions—is that although I have little or no control over many events in my life, I always have considerable control over my response to them. My shame came from knowing that it wasn’t my missing the eclipse, but my interpretation of the event that left me feeling so dispirited.

Resisting what is creates a lot of additional suffering, but radical acceptance has been a difficult concept for me to implement, as my desire to change unfavorable circumstances feels both intrinsic and relentless. The trick is knowing which things are in my control and which are out of my grasp.

I wish I didn’t have shrapnel in my body. I wish I could hug my mother again. I wish I could spare my loved ones from their suffering, and I wish I had witnessed what may be a once-in-a-lifetime event of seeing a total solar eclipse.

However, these things are entirely out of my control, and instead of resisting them, I am better off accepting them. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke has a line that haunts me: Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

We really don’t have another choice.

Still, I feel empowered knowing that my mental outlook is entirely in my domain. I get to choose how long I hold onto a negative thought or experience. I get to decide how much jealousy, sorrow, or disappointment I swallow at any given moment. And I get to choose to notice all the good that comes my way and how much pleasure I squeeze out of it.

With spring in full bloom, I too feel reinvigorated. I am striving to pay attention to positive experiences, however small they might seem. The other day, I was taking a walk and I passed by a row of colorful hyacinths. Right at that moment, the wind rustled and picked up their sweet, heady scent. It was a magical little moment.

Last week, I had lunch at a small Mediterranean restaurant and I ordered grape leaves stuffed with rice. At the first bite, their light citrusy taste took me back to my childhood before the war: I am ten years old sitting in the kitchen, smiling at my mother who is rolling sarma with bits of rice clinging to her rose-colored nails.

The next total solar eclipse in North America will be in 2044. If I am fortunate to be alive, I will be 65 years old. But none of us are promised the next hour or the next day, let alone two decades. In the meantime, I will endeavor to remind myself that it is rarely the big, cosmic events that have the most impact on our existence.

The universe is grand and mysterious, but so is the human mind, which decides the quality of all of our experience. Observing my thoughts, challenging them, and choosing the right narrative for any given event is a lifelong pilgrimage. I hope to do it with as little extra baggage as I can—and with some grace.

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