What We See in the Darkest Night

It’s easy to take earthquakes for granted when you live in California.

If I’m sitting quietly in my home office, I’ll feel a little jolt once or twice a week. It catches my attention, but I go right back to what I was doing.  Sometimes it’s big enough to rattle the windows, and I’m more engaged.

But when a big one hits, it changes everything.

Most people were asleep at 4:31 AM on January 17, 1994. That’s when the “big one” hit in Northridge, California.  It lasted 20 seconds, and nobody slept through it.

I know I didn’t.

Freeways collapsed. Buildings crumbled. Almost 60 people died.  Hundreds were injured. Adrenaline flowed like a river.

And then the lights went out.

Massive power outages took place throughout Los Angeles. In the predawn hours, major sections of the city were powerless. People scrambled in the confusion and rubble, trying to find flashlights and candles.

Outside, there were no streetlights, no signals, no neon signs.

It was just . . . dark.

Later that day when the sun rose and the power gradually returned, the Griffith Park Observatory began receiving dozens of calls from people who had seen a huge, silver cloud floating over the city. Some feared it was related to aliens, while most simply wondered if the earthquake had somehow impacted the atmosphere.  As the sun rose, the cloud dissipated.

After hearing similar descriptions from callers, the observatory staff finally realized what the cloud was – what the people had actually seen.

It was the Milky Way.

GalaxyPeople who had lived in the distraction of city lights for decades saw stars and constellations they had never seen before. Those stars had always been there, but the lights overpowered their view of the galaxies.

The darker the night, the easier it is to see the stars.

As a child, our family used to drive across the Arizona desert in the middle of night to escape the heat. I would lay in the back of our station wagon and look at the stars out the back window.  I remember wondering why there were so many more stars in the desert than in the city.

The stars are always there. But when the lights are bright, we can live under them for years and never notice them.  It takes our world being shaken and the lights going out for us to really see.

For me, it’s a reminder that we’re surrounded by wonder. But our lives are so filled with trivia and schedules and shiny objects that we forget that it exists.

Nobody likes dark times in life. But if you’re in one, look up.

Some things can only be seen in the darkest of nights.

That’s where we see the wonder.

Take a break.

Take a breath.

Get perspective. Listen to someone deeply.  Remember the things that matter most.  Tell someone you care.

Look for the silver cloud.

Senior Consultant at FranklinCovey; Speaker, Author of 5 books – including “People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys,” “I Wish He Had Come With Instructions,” and “Dealing With the Elephant in the Room.” (See Book page)

  • Jeanne Vincent

    Thank you Mike for the reminder that we are all very blessed to live in this country.

    We are blessed with electricity as you mentioned knowing what it was like without it. Blessed when we don’t have it because life is different world without it. Many of us have not the slightest idea what that world is like. We are blessed with food by just going to the store and buying what we want. Blessed with a home, with our families. Even in disaster we are still blessed knowing that if electricity fails we will get it back on sooner or later. Or, if the grocery store is out of something we wanted, they will have it back again next week.

    Hurricane Andrew leveled many cities in the Miami area in 1993. No power, let alone power poles to carry the electricity for miles and miles. No homes standing, no phones, no food or water. Most people had never ever been without air conditioning or any of the above mentioned. It’s especially hot in Florida July through September and almost everyone has air conditioning.

    I was on the other end of the phone working for the Power Co. at the time. I could not believe how naive and rude normal everyday people were. Demanding things that were impossible to do. As if nothing had happened to them, just to thousands of other people. Denying that a hurricane had just destroyed all major business, power plants, grocery stores, roads, and police security. Even though the State was providing schools for shelters, food and beds to sleep in, they didn’t want that. They wanted what they had before the hurricane. At the time, an impossible request. It would take months and even years to put everything back to somewhat normal..

    People in third world countries are more in tune with nature, growing their own food for the most part. Living without electricity, sewer systems, running water, and telephones. They know the stars and planets because that is what they use to plant and harvest their food by. They can even tell you weather report for the next week by the atmosphere. The sky and stares are a major part of these peoples lives. Everything is planned around the seasons of the year. They store food and fuel for the winter or lean months. Everyone has to work to provide for their own family and helps those who can’t provide for themselves. How beautiful the sky is at night, the clouds, forests, fields, animals, plants, trees and flowers.

    I know that their has to be a metaphor here some place. Especially, when the kid at the check out line at the supper market can’t tell you what kind of fruit or vegetable you have in your basket, but can tell you how many icons and gig-a bites they have on their cell phones.

    Experiencing what I have in the past with people in real trouble, I hope this country never has a serious catastrophe in which some Americans can’t recover. Those of us who respect and know Mother Nature I hope will continue enlighten those who don’t know the other world out there.

    • What great insight, Jeanne – thanks for sharing!

      It reminds me of being in Ethiopia a few years ago, and noticing that some of the poorest people had the greatest joy. It’s all about perspective – and we could learn from that.

      Thanks for your thoughts – and sorry for the delay! (I’m writing about why in Wednesday’s post) . . .


  • Mary Langer Thompson

    Beautiful post, especially since I lived in Canoga Park at the time of this earthquake and in Glendale for the Sylmar one in 1971.

    • Those memories stick with us, don’t they? Thanks!