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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Looking beyond total darkness

The looming solar eclipse is a metaphor for what’s happening in the U.S.

A total solar eclipse is seen from Palembang,

A total solar eclipse is seen from Palembang, Indonesia, on March 9, 2016. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Ulet Ifansasti

The path of totality.

It’s a fascinating phrase, especially in the context of our troubled times. It conjures images of destruction, from bombs or verbal bombast. It evokes a sense of foreboding, set to a soundtrack of brooding synthesizers, jarring percussion and distant but ominous crowd roars.

The path of totality actually is the 70-mile-wide strip of America that tomorrow will experience a total solar eclipse. It will take about four hours from its beginnings in Oregon to its end in South Carolina. But totality — the complete blockage of the sun by the moon — will last less than three minutes in any one place.

If only that essence — the approaching and enveloping darkness, vanquished by a quick return of light — were part of a metaphor for a troubled nation.

As with bygone eclipses, this one certainly will be a fun distraction, and lord knows we do need a fun distraction. Too bad its march will not be in slo-mo.

The eclipse is bringing us together at a time when the country is crying out in vain for leadership to do just that. Crowds will be huge — but they’ll be gathering to celebrate, not protest. They’ll be bonded by their shared purpose, not rived by their differences. They’ll feel the intense emotions that come from the peculiar intimacy shared by strangers with a singular goal.

What a glorious respite.

People who have experienced a total solar eclipse describe it as being indescribable. You can’t understand it, they say, until you’ve experienced it. That’s something worth experiencing, with no media filters getting in the way.

Some people cry — from joy and wonder, not fear or dread or pain or injury. Others scream, or babble, or stare in awe — not because they’re dismayed by the unfathomable things they’re hearing but because they’re dumbfounded by the unfathomable things they’re seeing. It’s an adrenaline rush more powerful than the charge you get from a political rally, and not even the best camera can do it justice. The magic is in your own viewing of it, and in your memory.

As darkness approaches, familiar objects turn strange and ordinary scenery becomes extraordinary in the new mix of light, color and contrast. News accounts of New York’s famed 1925 eclipse depicted skyscrapers “rising gaunt . . . like gray ghosts.” It’s not fake news, it’s simply something for which most of us have no frame of reference with which to compare.

People say witnessing a total solar eclipse is life-changing. That would be great, greater for some than for others. I hope everyone, from the biggest of big cheeses to the smallest among us, has a chance to take it in.

But I hope this eclipse is something more.

I hope it teaches us to look at things differently, like the solar eclipse of 1919 did by allowing British astronomers to conduct an experiment confirming Einstein’s theory of general relativity, changing the world’s thinking about space and making Einstein a star.

I hope it’s healing, like it was for a partially blind 64-year-old New Jersey man who said that looking directly at the 1925 eclipse restored his sight. On the chance that actually happened, would it be wrong to wish that some people in need of a vision correction abandon their glasses tomorrow?

I hope we all stop, look up and wonder. I hope the amazing celestial show leads us to channel our better angels. I hope the glow lasts forever.

But if it doesn’t, fear not.

Another total solar eclipse is coming to the United States on April 8, 2024, with a path of totality stretching from Texas to Maine and right through upstate New York. That’s less than seven years away.

We’ll be in the middle of presidential primaries.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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