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The Psychological Power of an Eclipse

Could the upcoming eclipse help us find greater kindness?

Key points

  • People have tried to understand the power of an eclipse for centuries.
  • Virginia Woolf, among others, wrote about an eclipse's impact on the human psyche.
  • One philosopher coined the concept of "unselfing" to describe an eclipse's impact.
  • Researcher Dacher Keltner, who studies awe, believes watching an eclipse can lead to greater kindness.
AI Generated/Shutterstock
Source: AI Generated/Shutterstock

“Hey, what's the deal with this eclipse?" my patient Ricardo wondered. "What's the pull? My grandparents, who are ill and in their 80s, are making a huge trip, almost a pilgrimage, to see it. My sister, who has a new baby and a toddler, is travelling for hours to watch. It seems like people want to see it before the world comes to an end.” He asked me, “What do you think?”

It was an interesting question. I agreed with Richardo that there seemed to be more intensity around this eclipse than eclipses past. I set about to do some research to reflect on the psychological and spiritual resonance.

Mass tourism, of course, is a relatively new development. Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer, commented on a surge of tourism for the eclipse of 1869 and noted that it was marketed as popular entertainment for the layperson, not just the scientific community.

Virginia Woolf’s remarkable description of the 1927 eclipse brings together both the exterior event and interior psychological impact it was having on her: “Now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour… rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded, it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm, the light sank and sank… when suddenly the light went out.”

Her discussion of the psychological impact on her is profoundly moving: “We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again… but with a great sense of relief. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.”

Woolf probed deeper. “What remained was the sense of the comfort which we get used to, of plenty of light, and colour… How can I express the darkness? It was a sudden plunge, when one did not expect it; being at the mercy of the sky… all that was in one’s mind."

Essayist Annie Dillard saw an otherworldly dimension in this disorienting event:

“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know: The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were now platinum… this color has never been seen on Earth… The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photography from which the tints had faded. I missed my own century, the people I know, and the real light of day… All of nature, it seemed, partook in the strangeness with the same alarmed awe… Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky.

If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never once thought of the moon—if, like most of the world’s people throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing—Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840 simply died of fright on the spot. It did not look like a dragon [as the ancient Chinese thought], although it looked more like a dragon than the moon."

But then Dillard’s perspective broadened:

“In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down… you find what our sciences cannot locate or name the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here."

This made me wonder if my patient Richardo was touching on something deeper, an urge for healing and community, a re-connection with nature and the universe, for the return of light in this time of darkness. As Rachel Carson noted, “There is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity."

In a recent study conducted by the APA of over 3,000 people, the authors reported that we are seeing a nation grappling with collective trauma. The research included the impact of the pandemic, global conflicts, wars, climate-related disasters, racism, and the loss of more than a million people. Could this collective pilgrimage to the eclipse perhaps be a way to heal, to reconnect with the larger universe?

Some contemporary writers, such as Helen MacDonald, who in Vesper writes beautifully of nature and our relationships with animals, found it a revelation of just how much “a total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality.” She continues, “It turns out there is something more affecting than watching the sun disappear into a hole. Watching the sun climb out of it.”

For me, this is the power of an eclipse, the return of the light, and the impact that has on our collective psyches. In fact, novelist Iris Murdoch spoke about the eclipse as an “occasion for unselfing.”

This literary idea leads us to the research of Dacher Keltner on awe. He speaks about the “boundary-dissolving sense of being part of something larger. It is at this point that his work dovetails with Murdoch’s insight on the self. “As you encounter mystery, your self starts to get really small… you really open up to the world and to other people… And then you want to do good—be a better person.”

Keltner’s research sheds light on why, at this time, we are willing to drive thousands of miles to “unself” and move out of darkness. “Being in the presence of vast things… enables greater kindness toward others." And with that, the knowledge that in dark times the earth is still turning, and the deep understanding that no matter how dark it gets, light will return.


Quotes are from Maria Popova's The Marginalian newsletter.

Dacher Keltner quotes are from

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