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  • Melissa Sims

What the Solar Eclipse Teaches Us About Humanity

I am not a particularly patriotic person - and that’s not about politics. I’ve just never really thought of a country as an identity and you’ll probably never see me wave a flag around. But oddly, every time I hear the national anthem (even if sung poorly), I get this wave of emotion. It is usually in a large crowd, and the build up of the song, coupled with the shared emotion of all of the spectators makes my heart swell and a lump form in my throat. And, if you look around, most people seem to be experiencing the same thing: awe.

The power of awe-inspiring events lies in their ability to transcend the boundaries of individual experience, connecting us on a fundamentally human level. These moments, whether they be natural phenomena like a solar eclipse, technological marvels like a spaceship launch, hearing the national anthem at a large event, or even sitting in a movie theater emoting with a group of strangers, have a profound ability to bring people together, fostering a shared sense of wonder and unity.

Awe is an emotional response to encounters with phenomena that challenge our understanding of the world, inspiring a sense of wonder that is deeply connected to our search for meaning. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt describe awe as a feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the universe. This vastness isn’t just physical size; it’s also about the scale of an event’s impact, encompassing its significance and the collective emotional response it elicits. I would actually go a little astray from that and say that it isn’t that we don’t understand the phenomena, it’s that we realize it is so much bigger than us. It’s a reminder that a lot of the gunk we squabble about and stress about really isn’t that important in the grand scheme of the universe.

Consider the phenomenon of a solar eclipse, like the one we had on Monday. This celestial event, where the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, momentarily cloaking parts of the Earth in an eerie twilight, is a powerful generator of awe. People from all walks of life, spanning different cultures and continents, often travel thousands of miles to witness this spectacle. In fact, I was just in a meeting where one of the attendees was in Dallas for a wedding and couldn’t find a hotel room because they were booked up (and woefully overpriced) due to the migration of eclipse seekers. Why would people go to such lengths to see something that lasts just a few moments? It’s that search for meaning. During a total solar eclipse, observers are united in a brief, surreal experience that transcends ordinary life. The shared sense of wonder and the primal connection to the cosmos remind us of our shared humanity and the mysteries of the universe that we collectively yearn to understand.

I’ve also been seeing crowds of people staring up at the sky looking for SpaceX. Similarly, the launch of a spaceship is a testament to human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Watching a rocket ascend into the sky, defying gravity with a thunderous roar, is a moment of collective triumph. It represents the culmination of countless hours of labor, innovation, and dreams. For those watching, whether in person or via live stream, it’s a moment that encapsulates the potential of human collaboration and our shared aspirations to explore beyond our earthly confines.

These events do more than just bring people physically together; they foster a sense of interconnectedness and shared purpose. They remind us of what we can achieve when we transcend our individual concerns and work together towards a common goal. And these awe-inspiring events not only bring us together, but they bring us into collective mindfulness, where we are focused on one single thing, at the very moment it is happening. 

The concept of collective consciousness, first introduced by French sociologist Émile Durkheim, refers to the set of shared beliefs, ideas, and moral attitudes that operate as a unifying force within society. Awe-inspiring events have a unique ability to tap into this collective consciousness, creating a shared energy that is palpable among those who experience these moments together. Teresa and I talk more about this on this week's podcast:

This shared energy is not just a byproduct of collective experience; it is a crucial element that reinforces our sense of community and interconnectedness. In moments of awe, our individual differences fade into the background, replaced by a profound sense of unity and belonging. This can lead to a ripple effect, encouraging greater empathy, understanding, and cooperation among individuals and communities.

The Ripple Effect: From Awe to Action

The impact of awe-inspiring events extends beyond the moments of their occurrence. The feelings of unity and shared purpose can inspire collective action towards common goals, whether they be environmental conservation, space exploration, or social justice. The awe experienced in these moments can serve as a catalyst for change, motivating individuals and communities to come together to address the challenges facing our world.

Furthermore, the shared experience of awe can lead to a deeper appreciation for the beauty and fragility of our planet. For example, astronauts who have witnessed the Earth from space often speak of the “Overview Effect,” a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit. This experience of seeing the Earth as a tiny, vulnerable sphere hanging in the vastness of space can inspire a profound sense of responsibility for its well-being, underscoring our interconnectedness and the need for global cooperation in addressing environmental challenges.

In an era characterized by division and uncertainty, the power of awe to bring us together is more important than ever. Awe-inspiring events serve as powerful reminders of our shared humanity, the wonders of the natural and technological world, and the potential for collective action. By fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose, these moments of awe can inspire us to transcend our differences and work together towards a more harmonious and sustainable future. They can serve as a reminder that there are still so many wonderful people and things in the world, if we just take a moment to step outside of our circumstance and shift our perspective, much like the astronauts looking down on earth. 

As we move forward, let us seek out and cherish these moments of awe. Whether it be in the shadow of a solar eclipse, the roar of a spaceship launch, or the myriad other experiences that remind us of our place in the universe, let us use these moments as opportunities to come together, strengthen our collective consciousness, and build a world that reflects our shared aspirations and dreams.


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