During a total solar eclipse in 1988, a remote tribe in the Philippines called the Tboli did what it had done for centuries during previous eclipses. The people rushed to make loud noises by banging gongs and drums. Despite some modern education in astronomical science, about half the tribe still believed an ancient myth that the sun might not shine again unless they made the clanging sounds.
This story about the human senses misreading a celestial event as eternal darkness might be useful as many Americans prepare to experience a total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. The United States now seems as much under a shadow of hatefulness as it will be Monday under the darkness of the moon’s shadow from Oregon to South Carolina. The hate is being measured in rallies by white supremacists, in hate crimes against minorities, in public diatribes against elected leaders, in internet postings by hate groups, and even in arguments between friends and neighbors. And this dark mood may seem as permanent as the eclipse did for the Tboli people.
Astronomy has liberated much of humanity from false beliefs about the motions of the stars and planets. Earth is no longer seen as the center of the universe. The sun is just another star. The planets do not foretell human events. The light of scientific understanding over the centuries even informs us today that the darkness of a total solar eclipse will last only about 2 minutes, 40 seconds. No gongs need to be banged on Aug. 21.
Is there a similar lightness of understanding to lift America’s dark mood of hate? It cannot easily be found among national politicians or on cable TV. Only a minority of Americans look to the current president for moral leadership. Social media accelerates hate speech more than it spreads bonds of affections. Counterprotests against the protests of hate groups may make a moral statement; but they may not make peace.
Lifting this gloom will take individual acts of faith that the natural affection among diverse people can return to the American landscape. Such moments of courage, understanding, and love are not as easily measured as acts of hate. Yet they are more real and eternal.
A good example was recorded in a New Yorker magazine article about the clergy of Charlottesville, Va., coming together before the Aug. 12 protests. The coalition of local faith leaders, who call themselves the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, wanted to be prepared for the right-wing march and the clash over the city’s Confederate monuments. On the morning of the protests, the group’s leader, Alvin Edwards of the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, invited people to a worship service to help bring calm to the event. “We were trying to be prayerful, and I’m grateful for that, because I believe it would have been worse if people hadn’t prayed,” he told the magazine.
Such goodness of thought, whether expressed in prayer or in daily activities, has the power to dispel a belief that hate is an everlasting presence. It may not be as loud as a gong. But it works just as well in brightening hearts eclipsed by dark moods.