Beyond the Event Horizon of Despair

You know when you’ve passed the point of no return, and anguish takes over, but all is not lost.

The event horizon of a black hole is a boundary which, once crossed, makes a fall toward its center inevitable. Even light is bound, giving the black hole its morbid moniker.

The event horizon offers a good metaphor for experiences of anguish. If you’ve skirted episodes of deep despair, you know this boundary well. Steer clear of it, and you can bounce back, avert agony, and face the day. It remains aching in the distance, but one’s normal routine is mostly preserved. Walk along its invisible rim, and you feel its gravity, a force calling you inward. Keeping steady takes great effort. If you cross it even by an inch, you plummet head over heels into greater intensities of pain that consume all focus. Why does pain do this?

I can give one answer from my perspective as a psychologist, one rooted in textbooks and journal articles that is minimally helpful in the face of actual despair. I would point to the urgent message embedded in all pain: Pay attention to this thing that is hurting you! That is the nature of pain, refusing to be ignored. To say that this keeps us alive is a dry, academic observation when you’re presently feeling it. More than that, despair is the sort of pain whose message seems especially futile. Defined by the overwhelming sense that all is lost, it seems to rage on for no good cause.

In contrast to the studious answer, I can share a letter written from within that dark singularity. This letter is not written to the observer happily skipping through space, well beyond the event horizon. If you are not currently hurting, these words may fall flat. I know of one author whose writings speak to me when I’m hurting, then when I’m feeling content, sound awkward. I can revisit the same paragraphs when anguish resurfaces, and the same words I deemed cringeworthy when I felt good suddenly gush in like a warm blanket tucking my heart in for the night. All that to say, if this doesn’t resonate, come back and read it again when you’re hurting.

Words from the Dark

It is stunning how much despair hurts. And loneliness, when you come to the conclusion that no one is available to share this moment with you in a way that nourishes your heart. The last time I stumbled into an ER and laid writhing in the hospital bed waiting for morphine did not hurt as much. Emotions can pack a punch.

Some emotions, when embraced, run their course like a fever. If I relax and give them a voice, just hear them out and let them flow, they quickly run out. They evaporate on their own, in virtue of being heard. At their tail end is relief and warmth, a bit of comfort at being fully felt.

Despair, on the other hand, is relentless. If I lend it my ear and give it reign, it does not run out. Instead, it gets bigger and bigger. I tumble closer. At some point, the will to evade it weakens in its gravity, and I just fall in.

I can sense, however, that the emotion of despair is not itself the problem. The emotion is not the source of gravity. The black hole here is the endless number of valid reasons to grieve life on Earth, the inevitability of hunger and loss, the long history of horror, and the ultimate fragility of our human bonds, though we need them so much. Despair is consuming because there is no end to the losses we can register with the instrument of the heart. If the heart is a seismometer, life on Earth is one massive earthquake after another, all around the globe.

Every time I have found myself in this dark freefall, the only thing that begins to dissipate that despair is to see that there is no solution. No way to make all the wrongs right. No way to feed every hunger. I cannot fix it all. I might cross one woe off my list, but another will take its place. To avoid being crushed in the black hole or stretched like spaghetti, I must first give up. I must resign, not to the emotions but to the worlds of loss that created them.

This means being able to sit with suffering, patiently witnessing it. If you can do this in the presence of your own despair, you can do it in the presence of others’. We tend to respond to the pain of others the way we respond to our own pain.

This resignation or patience is, however, just the first step. The next is essential. Before I name it, I must tell you—it will sound like some sort of demand, like a moral requirement or call to virtue, but I swear, it’s not. It’s something else—a paradoxical source of comfort. The next step is an opening to compassion (not to be compassionate but to just open to it).

When I look again into the center of the darkness from a place of resignation, I can feel that I’m not actually alone. Countless others face the same losses, the same terrible conditions, and worse. Instinctively, my heart goes out to them. And that’s when it happens.

A light.

Compassion stirs within like a soft light coming into being. The gravity cannot touch it. Somehow, it escapes the force of despair–or rather, the gravity of loss.

You cannot logic your way to it. We all have so much to grieve, so much to hurt about, and it’s absolutely normal to want to make things right, to regain control, to restore safety, to heal broken bonds, to love and be loved. These needs are the best parts of our human nature.

We are equipped by human nature with an overpowering compulsion to seek harmony and love, and when that seems threatened, to protect it. We all have similar visions of heaven on Earth, in essence. It’s in that second part (“to protect it”) where things seem to go horribly wrong, in the conflict between specifics. The way our collective longing for harmony falls apart is unutterably sad, but if you can look beyond the sadness, you can feel that collective longing, and its essence is beautiful.

Despair is human and valid, but if it sucks you in, you must find your way to a deep surrender. Then look around you. Look straight into the dark with the relaxed patience that only resignation can allow. The warmth of your heart, a light in your own center, will brighten and fill the darkness in an instinctual reflex of compassion.

When it does, you won’t feel alone any more, and the black hole will vanish.

Image credit: Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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