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Leaning into it

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Weekender Editor

DECEMBER 20, 2022

Earlier this year, I woke up, scrolled through the news and came across a picture of a black hole. Emerging from a black surface was a glowing orange orb oozing into a hollow center. Still drowsy from sleep, I was pulled in by the picture. Seconds, then minutes passed while I just sat there, peering into the image. 

Questions began to occupy my mind. How do you photograph a black hole which is, by its nature, unseeable? How about a soul, a person, any meager existence? In my little thought experiment, I tried to imagine how one would capture consciousness. How one might preserve it beyond the threshold of no escape. I wanted to make a repository for myself, evidence to “save for later,” but I couldn’t figure out how much of myself would live on in my absence and how much would die. I listened to my thoughts scramble, desperately searching for a method to perpetuate this life if it all gets absorbed, or swallowed by, the void. 

Getting up to make coffee, I felt the ground of meaning shift. Nothingness entered my thoughts like a continuous pull within my chest, drawing me so far into oblivion that I became nauseous, fearful and disoriented. At first, while pouring the hot coffee into my mug, my mind tried to escape the hypothetical of my nonexistence. But then, much to my surprise, the thought settled, lingered, then flowed through me for a while. 

Reality, when I began to interrogate it, effortlessly crumbled into dust. I was astonished at how delicately it balanced on unresolved questions. Just by thinking about the unknown, the world became surreal. Outside my window, I watched the Oakland skyline glitter between the trees. From the fourth floor, I felt as if I were balancing on the precipice of a crystal, peering into another dimension. 

We understand so little of the terrifying questions. When I was younger, I was most afraid of two types of natural disasters: earthquakes and tsunamis. It terrified me to learn that no one knows how to predict an earthquake. Where an earthquake might strike or how large it might be can be gauged from seismographs and patterns drawn from past seismic activity, fault slips and aftershocks. Even the most qualified seismologists can only make estimates. And, since earthquakes generate most tsunamis, no one knows exactly how to predict the source of a tsunami, either. Forecasts and probabilities only serve to brave the expected uncertainty of the seismic shift. 

As a kid, I spent most summers in the car with my dad. Most of his work involved driving, so we drove everywhere in the Bay Area: from San Jose to San Francisco and Oakland, down to Fremont, back toward Milpitas. On those drives, my dad was a storyteller whose inspiration came from the road, his recollections of passing buildings or neighborhoods. 

Whenever we drove across the Bay Bridge, he remembered the 1989 earthquake. My dad was working under a car when the first wave hit; the car flew off the jacks and nearly fell on top of him. He remembers running into the street and seeing the cement “wave like the ocean.” On the radio, he heard the World Series was canceled and worried about his friends at Candlestick Park. His parents called him to describe what they saw on TV: like a freefall, an upper section of the Bay Bridge crumbled and caved into the lower deck.

When my dad drove me across the Bay Bridge, I remember leaning my head towards the window to watch the metal cables brushing past us. Now redesigned, the bridge seemed so technical and astonishing. My dad reassured me that the bridge was safe, but I couldn’t trust it. No piece of technology is supernatural. Like us, it always has the potential to fall. 

In California, where I grew up, people are accustomed to the earth shifting under their feet. The entire world surfs on the disordered slips at the boundaries and the tremors of tectonic plates. Living with uncertainties is our knack, our natural skill. We’re such great observers of chance that we effortlessly overlook it, without pausing to think about how precarious the earth actually is. 

In the flow of everyday life, it’s easy to look away from the precarity of reality. When we fear the unknown, we tend to fall back on what keeps us safe. We attempt to make sense of things, find the patterns and wrap it all up into a narrative, a novel or a movie. But sometimes, joy lingers in the unresolved questions. Leaning into uncertainties can turn confusion into curiosity and worry into play. Joy can be found in the disorderly jumble of the hour, the breakdown of order, the chaos in flux. 

In theory, a black hole is unseeable, “almost featureless.” All we can see in a picture of a black hole is its shadow cast against the light material surrounding it. In Michael Dine’s essay, “Cogitating black holes,” he writes that the black hole’s extreme gravity “distorts our view, warping its surroundings as if seen in a carnival mirror.” Such a complicated system still bewilders science and technology. Like black holes, the workings of the universe are invisible, enormously unknown. Dine argues that, at least for now, the “thought experiments involving black holes, among other phenomena, will have to light the way.” 

Thought experiments are valuable for thinking through our lives, too. While it is impossible to see a black hole or foresee an earthquake, speculating on their nature enables us to explore them with curiosity rather than fear. There are so many pockets of uncertainty underneath our daily routines. When brave, we might peer into them and discover something valuable — joy hides in the strangest places. For me, I find joy in leaning into the unknown, invisible depths of the precarity that holds it all together. Accept the trust fall of not knowing all the answers, and breathe into it.

Contact Sabrina Miranda at [email protected].

JANUARY 23, 2023