Yesterday, a friend of mine who is traveling to Charleston, NC to view next week's total solar eclipse told me that, of the anticipated experience, he'd "better get a poem out of it." I laughed, imagining him returning home wearing a t-shirt that read "I saw the eclipse and all I got out of it was this crappy haiku."
He was, of course, half-joking. But, like most jokes, his shed light on the potential problem of scheduling an epiphany. Yes, to demand to be moved enough to write verse in heroic couplets might not be the norm. On the other hand, expecting to find peace on a sandy beach or mindfulness on top of a mountain is. How many of us complete our travel itinerary, load up the car, and head off to looking for an experience we have never had before or desperately attempting to repeat that perfect summer vacation we had as a kid? No wonder we return home more often than not unenlightened, disappointed, tired, ready for mundane humdrum of work and predictable routine again.
My friend's joke about what he expected from the upcoming eclipse reminded me of T.S. Eliot's poem "The Journey of the Magi." In it, Eliot imagines the experience of one of the magi, also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men or (Three) Kings, who were, in the Gospel of Matthew and Christian tradition, a group of foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. You can hear Eliot read the poem here:
First time readers of the poem are surprised at how harsh the journey is depicted by Eliot whose realism is an attempt to show how life-changing experiences seldom feel, well, life-changing and the ways our expectations of a dramatic transformation can be thwarted. What better way to do this than by viewing the epiphanic story par excellence (the birth of the messiah) through the exhausted voice of a man who finds, at the prompting of a bright star, uncertainty and more mystery? After traveling miles with no success and lots of ridicule, the magus is unsure what he has seen. Years later, thinking back on the journey, he muses
All of this was a long time ago
...were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
Expecting to find enlightenment, he finds darkness. But this darkness is not the darkness of conclusion but a new beginning. To him, his journey feels *like the end but only because what he has seen, a birth of "hard and bitter agony" contrasted with his expectations, didn't fit into his paradigm, surprised him. And, Eliot suggests, he continues to wrestle with the meaning of the journey long after it is over:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensations...
Though scheduling an epiphany seldom works, we can gain wisdom from every journey we take, as long as we are, like the magus, willing to wrestle with our dashed expectations. Perhaps if my friend is not lucky enough to be inspired by the eclipse, his thwarted hope will later be the basis of even greater accomplishment, either in verse or life.