This is this blog’s penultimate post. I don’t have any pretense that these last couple of writs are going to be any better quality than what I normally write (hopefully they won’t be much worse), but they do pertain to subjects that are very important to me, and I hope that they will comprise an adequate “series finale” to this small corner of the web.
I want to start this post with a question: what tears you apart?
In space, when a star nears the end of its life, it “runs out of gas,” so to speak. Up to a certain element, iron, nuclear fusion creates energy. Stars create energy primarily by fusing hydrogen into helium, but when they run out of hydrogen, they start fusing heavier elements: helium, carbon, nitrogen, and so on. But after iron, it actually costs more energy to force two atoms together than to break them apart. Since nature is all about laziness and efficiency, the star stops the fusion reactions. It just stops creating fuel. But then gravity finally wins out over the pressure of the star’s combustion reactions. The star collapses, and if it is large enough, it blows off a large amount of its outer matter in a supernova, a huge, violent explosion that can make the star briefly outshine the rest of the stars in its galaxy. When the massive star is finished collapsing, it typically has turned into one of two things: a neutron star, or a black hole.
You can guess which one gets more media coverage.
Black holes are fascinating to the public (and to scientists) because they are not terribly well understood. Most people understand one thing about them: they suck other things up. In reality, what happens is that the mass of the star gets compacted into a very very small region of space and creates a singularity. This singularity has so much gravity that up to a certain radius outside of it, not even light can escape its pull. Once something gets pulled within this “event horizon,” there’s no going back.
But what most people don’t realize is that out beyond the event horizon, the black hole’s not all that powerful. For example, one question I am asked a lot regards what would happen if the Sun suddenly became a black hole (it won’t). The truth is, nothing would happen to us here on earth. That black hole wouldn’t contain any more mass than the Sun already does, and its gravitational pull certainly wouldn’t increase at our distance (we would die, of course, since the heat and light that we need to survive wouldn’t be hitting us any more, but that’s beside the point). If the Sun became a black hole right this very moment, we would not start inexorably falling into its cavernous stellar maw any more than we are falling into the Sun right now.
I have a little black hole inside of me. Maybe you do too. Something that is tearing away at me day after day after day, something that feels like a little dead zone inside of me where nothing can escape from. Something that has collapsed from what once was burning brightly and seemed so full of energy and expanse into what I can’t even really understand very well. Something that seems like it might someday overtake all of me, sucking me down into the singularity of despair that resides within it.
But you know what? It won’t. It can’t. Whatever is bothering you today, this very moment, does not have the power to destroy you. Maybe it’s sorrow at circumstances beyond your control. Maybe it’s an unquiet mind, strewn with feelings of despair, confusion, and abandonment. Maybe it’s regret at your own choices in life, and the sins you willfully committed. Maybe it’s things in your life that right now at this very moment you know are bad for you, but don’t know how to get rid of. These things, in the common parlance, “suck.” And they can suck, slowly pulling all the other aspects of our lives into their chaos.
But they don’t have to. Just like real black holes, their gravitational pull on our lives is not infinite.
We can choose to reside beyond the event horizon. We can orient ourselves away from these dark things, and day after day remind ourselves that they cannot destroy us. It is not easy. And it does not produce instant permanent happiness. The black hole is still there, after all. Maybe it will always be there. I don’t know. But if the choice is between having a small localized black hole somewhere inside of me but finding meaning in many other things, or giving in and falling into the singularity of despair, I know which choice I want to make.
I’m not saying here that we can just effortlessly, or even with much work, simply choose to get over bad things in our lives. Sufferers of mental anguish often know that simple “positive thinking” has no lasting or meaningful effect. We can’t just effort the black hole away.
But we at least do not have to fall into it.