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A week ago Sunday night I sat on the front porch and watched the moon as it rose, full and bright. Clouds came and went but when the sky was clear I could see the progression of the lunar eclipse. The darkness started on the lower left, seeping toward the right until finally a blurry crescent of light succumbed to the full shadow of the earth. If I kept my eyes on it I could still make out the eerie dark outline of the whole moon. Pinpricks of starlight made their way to my eyes, but the sunlight trying to reflect off the moon was stopped in its tracks, like the Earth had gotten in its own way. I knew that this too would pass though–and I knew exactly how long it would take. I refreshed the astronomers’ webpages a few times, glancing at the experts’ telescopic vantage points. I looked at Facebook, as friends in other cities lamented the opacity of the clouds above them, knowing that the celestial event was unfolding just beyond their view. I wondered what tales the ancients told, what portents these eclipses and supermoons had in their prescientific narratives. I tried to picture the arrangement of planets and sun and moons, like styrofoam balls dangling from a mobile in a middle schooler’s science project, and I marveled at the human capacities that have brought us here, to an era where we have calculated the physics to allow for a landing on the moon, and for a flyby of Pluto, where we know the paths of our planetary and lunar neighbors well enough to say with certainty who will pass by when, what time one will rise and set. I thought about what the world was like when the last supermoon lunar eclipse happened in 1982, and what it will be like when it happens next, in 2033.
And maybe this feels like a stretch, even unrelated, but to me the news of yet another massacre in American classrooms this week bore some resemblance to the experience of watching the eclipse. You knew it was coming, in this case not exactly when, but it was only a matter of time before the sorry stars aligned again. Bullets rained like a meteor shower, and a shadow this time fell over Oregon, dampening the light as it has in so many other ravaged schools and communities. With a lunar eclipse, we strain to see it, knowing it will not pass this way again soon. With the shooting, we are barraged with headlines and statistics and new versions of the strikingly similar stories of innocent victims, near misses, disgruntled perpetrators, massively destructive weapons. Fatigued by these repeated tragedies, we nonetheless know we can’t look away. We muster our outrage once again, returning to the elliptical trajectories of politicized arguments, the flickering constellations of candlelight vigils, the waxing and waning laments of such utterly senseless loss of life.
No one saw it coming, we insist, knowing full well how predictable these tragedies have become, regular like the phases of the moon.
We see these terrible shadows and pretend not to understand how they work, as though we have no choice but to see them as cosmic mysteries. Eventually the brightness slowly returns and we forget the shadows, but the horror and heartbreak will surely come back around. The orbit of violence seems to be closing in on this nation, gaining momentum and gravity as it accelerates.
We humans have the technological prowess to discern the workings of the galaxy but not the moral courage to save us from ourselves. We seem to be less willing than ever to lay down our arms in order to seek the common good. Somehow our vision has been clouded and we have come to tolerate gun violence almost as though it were the natural order of things, as unalterable as the movement of the earth itself. It remains to be seen whether we will gravitate toward collective passivity, sitting back as we behold predictable events unfold as though beyond our control, or whether we will exercise our latent human capacities to change those things that are certainly within our power to change, refusing to let annihilation have the last word.