The Black Hole

“Black holes aren’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole, both to the outside, and possibly, to another universe. So, if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up.  There’s a way out.”  Stephen Hawking 

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I was the only woman aboard.  The guys were fist-pumping and chanting and glancing over the side of the dive boat, looking hard into the deep blue water for an early glimpse of the great reef.  This dive master had promised us a spectacular sight, and we were ready, intrigued.  Well, the men were ~ “pumped” and “stoked” were synonyms they favored.  I, on the other hand, the only novice among us, had a few cautious questions before this dive began.

“You say this dive is called ‘The Black Hole,’” I began, talking over the dive master’s shoulder as he sped the boat to the dive spot.  “Could you tell me just a little more about it?  I’ve just completed my lessons and that was in the North Sea where you don’t go deep and there are no real reefs.  Did I hear you say that the Black Hole spits a diver out at a bit more than 100 feet?  Well, I’ve never been to that depth and maybe I should sit this first one out, just let the guys go, and I’ll take the shallower dive later.  Don’t you think?”

The lady doth protest too much.

Of the many questions I asked that morning, there was only one answer.  This die had already been cast; I had stepped onto this boat; we were diving The Black Hole.  His answers to me in his lovely rich Caribbean brogue were the same, identical really, whether we were discussing seasickness or diving into deep holes in the reef or how long we would actually stay under the water.  Probably world politics would elicit the same response from him.

“Ah, all is good, mon.  No worries.  I’ll be there with you.”

We were a party of six.  Larry and me, Larry’s brother Spence, two college guys from the University of Georgia (wearing T-shirts to prove it), and the dive master.  This day was perfect for diving ~ not much wind and not many waves.  The turquoise ocean seemed ready to receive us.  For this moment, it was easy and beautiful.

“Ah, we are here, mon,” the dive master announced, turning off the skiff’s motor and tying onto a bouncing buoy marker, the pre-dive stillness broken with the stirring and whirring of equipment prep ~ masks and flippers and tanks and belts.

Let it be noted that while we wore equipment that Jacques Cousteau himself would have coveted and enough of it to stay underwater indefinitely, our dive master donned only a mask with no strap (held on his face by taking in a hard, deep breath) and his tank and regulator. Oh, and some pitiful-looking, half-splintered flippers.  A real no-frills kind of guy.

“Here’s what we’ll see, mon,” our dive master began.  “You will flip off the back of the boat, one at a time.  Wait for me just under the surface, ten or fifteen feet down.  We’ll go down to eighty feet where the mouth of the Black Hole is.  Watch the water change colors – the blues getting deeper and richer as you descend, so beautiful.  Don’t miss the fishes.  Always look up and down as you fall.  When we get there, at about eighty feet, you will see the great hole in the reef.  It is a very dark cave and you will see no light when you enter it, but that’s OK, mon, just swim in, no worries.  It will dogleg a bit to the right very quickly, and then you will see light.  Swim toward that light.  The end of this reef cave will put you out over water thousands of feet deep.  The dark blue water of the depths combined with the light blue water above creates a hue that you can see nowhere else on earth.  It’s like a heavenly blue; you must see it to know it’s real.  That’s why we go to the Black Hole, to see that blue.”

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The two college boys finished first and started a low, growling chant of “Black Hole, Black Hole,” like a football warm-up.  In they jumped.  The rest of us followed, rolling in backwards, adjusting masks and regulators.

From now on, all communication would be with hands and eyes.

The slow descent to eighty feet was like a floating dream ~ ancient sea turtles easing past, unafraid of human touch, and schools of tiny, neon fishes darting, darting.  Fins large and small.

 

Weightless wanderers we, journeying to a new place for the first time, like the poet Keats observed, “When a new planet swims into his ken.”

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The journey to the reef was quick, our new environs glanced upon but not examined, and we so soon found ourselves hovering above the cay, peering into its cave entrance, not large, maybe twelve feet in diameter.  Floating, we divers glanced at our dive master, needy for his wordless instructions.  Glancing downward into the Black Hole, he pointed with authority into the darkness.  We had already received our instructions: “It will dogleg a bit to the right very quickly and then you will see the light.  Swim toward that light.”

Nodding and grinning, the dive master modeled his own teaching and, with great speed and agility, simply turned and swam into the blackness.  I blinked and he was gone.  The college guys followed suit, as did my brother-in-law.  Down they went, simply disappearing into the reef, one after the other, the mouth swallowing them all so quickly that Larry and I were simply left, hovering.  I needed a moment just to look around me, to be sure that they really were gone.

They were.

We were alone, hovering about The Black Hole, and it was much much blacker than I expected.

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I cannot do this, my frightened eyes say, pleading with Larry for mercy and a way out. This is much more than I bargained for.  It’s too dark – there is no light in there at all.

We must follow them, his eyes clearly say.  There’s no other alternative. We can’t go back to the boat, and I know he’s right as we both look up, up, up, eighty feet and realize that we have no idea even where our dive boat is.

 

We are rookies in the darkness of these untried waters.

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Suspended over this gaping mouth, I concentrate on merely breathing in and out, to regulate both my physical position and my stress. There’s nothing else to be done. Larry won’t go without me, and I won’t go.

The blackness of the cave overwhelms.  It’s hopelessness and fearsomeness and silence is stronger than I am.  I will not go.

Nothing but silence.  Fearsome beauty in silence.

From the cave mouth comes wordless surprise – the brown hand of the dive master emerges, quick and ready, shaking and grabbing at the water, searching for something.  A lost diver perhaps, someone left behind.  A coward or a novice swimming in waters way above her head, unprepared for the dark path that awaits, even though she had been told that it would come.

His quick hand was searching for the person who could not follow him into the darkness.

Dare I reach down?  What will happen if I take the hand of the master?  

I’d like to think that it was an act of faith, but really it was just a lack of options that made me exhale enough breath to lower my scuba-clad self close enough to the reef mouth to take his hand.  I reached out, I did, but the dive master reached harder and with more deliberation, and the instant his fingers touched mine, he grabbed my hand with the power of a great sea creature and pulled me in.

Into the inky, pitchy darkness of a deep, underwater, black hole.

Swimming blind in the dark thirty feet before the turn.  Thirty feet doesn’t seem like much when one is walking off room dimensions or even swimming laps. But in the dark, it is slow.  I think it was the silence that made the journey seem so very long.  Silent swimming and the blackness of such a place ~ I had no choice but to hold onto the brown hand of the dive master.  Rather, he held onto mine with the firm grip of one who would never lose a diver in this blackness.  He had been here before ~ he knew the way.

Together we moved through, together turned the corner.  I could actually see it coming, shimmering glimpses of blue light dancing on rough cave walls in what still felt like a great distance away.

Not really light, more like the thought of light.  Is this what hope looks like?

I blinked and squinted and blinked again, unsure. What I was sure of was that I was doing absolutely none of the work of swimming – neither kicking nor stroking – I was simply being pulled toward the promise of light and a glimpse of blue that can only be seen here, in this very spot, and nowhere else on earth. I felt a light brush of something against my arm, and instinctively glanced over my shoulder.  In grand wonder I saw the glimmer of those neon fishes, thousands and thousands of them, flitting and dancing in great groups all around me, gleefully reflecting the greens and pinks and oranges of their creation.

 

Reflecting the light.  Glory be to God for dappled things.

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As promised, there it was.  We turned the corner and the dive master released his mighty grip and swam speedily ahead of me, other divers to attend to.  My glance and my instinct followed him and I swam.  Within seconds I was out of the Black Hole and swimming into the vastness of the sea itself, looking into that heavenly blue that the master had promised.  Look up and the water is so clear that, even at this level, I could see the whiteness of the breaking waves on the surface of the water.  Look down and the waters darken to blueness unique to deep, deep water.

Where darkness meets light, that is where beauty lives.

 

“You really can’t see the bluest blue until you’ve seen the blackest black.  That’s all I know, mon.”

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Sometimes our knowledge and preparation and personality and strength are just not enough.  Sometimes the dark is too dark and the light is too far away, and we lose hope of ever seeing anything else but the inky blackness.

The Master lives there too, hand outstretched.  “Ah, all is good, mon.  No worries.  I’ll be there with you.”

Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

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“Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me home, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn, /
Through the storm, through the night / Lead me on to the light / Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Jazz trombonist and band leader Tommy Dorsey wrote the song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” after his wife and baby died during childbirth.  Dorsey wrote, “As the Lord gave me these words and melody, He also healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power. And so I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when He will take me and gently lead me home.”

Here is Tommy Dorsey telling his story and the song itself ~ it’s worth a listen:

 

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Under Blankets with Freaks

I know people with perfect bodies who don’t have half the happiness I’ve found.  When you look for happiness in mere objects, they are never enough. Look around. Look within. ~ Nick Vujicic

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We had to move several chairs around to accomodate her wheelchair, but she didn’t mind the waiting.  She had come unknown and unannounced to this large Sunday School class, over one hundred strong, and had found warm smiles and offerings of coffee.  She seemed comfortable, wheelchair positioned on the second row.

A habit left over from an over-eager childhood, I like to sit on the front row of things.  Seated directly behind me, I had to turn around completely in my chair to see her and speak to her.  She tells me that she has come alone, wheeled herself through the doors and up the elevator, and found a class “with friendly faces” ~ I think that’s pretty brave.

Time for the lesson.  I turn back around, ready.

Let the games begin.

I have no recollection what Teacher-Pat was parsing out that day.  It was good, I’m sure, he always was.  The woman in the wheelchair must have been physically uncomfortable for she was making fidgeting sounds, a grunt here, a groan there, a few snuffles.  I wondered if she needed assistance but I didn’t turn around. No need to draw attention.

Ten minutes into the lesson, she spoke out. Questions were not unheard of but they were rare in such a big class.  She must not have known this.  “I have a question,” she interrupted, loudly, boldly.

It was actually not a question she had but a statement, a declaration, and she was adamant in voice, angry, a bit aggressive.  “I want to know why everyone always treats people in wheelchairs so badly, differently.  I constantly get sideward glances, stares, looks of pity and disgust.  I want to know why God lets these things happen to people.”

Why me, God? ~ The question we all ask, the big one.

Silent moments followed, just a few.  Teacher-Pat stands before the group, quiet, no words yet for the outburst.  Her declaration has nothing to do with his lesson at hand but rather the lessons of her life.  She feels shunned and overlooked, disregarded and discarded, outcasted, and she wants to know why.  So she comes and asks a group of people she doesn’t even know.

 

This perfect cartoon about empathy rolled through my newsfeed one day ~ you’ve probably seen it. (Click on it to see it more clearly.)

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Empathy is not just giving someone a blanket to cover up with when she is sad or feels like hiding ~ empathy bringing someone a blanket and then nesting under that blanket with her, safe together under the same cover.  Warm, protected.  Heard.

So I turn again hard in my seat, facing backwards to look at her again, propping both arms on the chair-back and leaning in.  I want to see her eyes and let her see mine, let her know that I am listening, hearing what she is saying, wanting to huddle up with her in empathy.

For the rest of this story to make sense, you must know that I was born with a small arm with only three fingers.  She had obviously noticed my arm before she began her speech ~ it was a hot-summer-sleeveless-dress kind of day.

“I didn’t ask to be in a wheelchair,” she continued to lament.  “I feel so invisible, so overlooked.  People who are not handicapped just can’t understand.”  Then she looked me square in my trying-to-be-empathetic eyes.  “You understand,” she said, nodding overly hard at my little arm perched on the chair-back.  “You know what it feels like to be different, to feel so apart from everyone else. You know how it feels to be a freak.”

Freak.

There it was.  She just called me a freak right as I was turned around facing the big class full-on.  I instinctively looked up to see 100 pairs of wide eyes staring at me with raised eyebrows, open-mouthed grins, and expressions that collectively said, “Well, look at that.  She just called you a big freak right in front of God and everybody.”  These people knew me; they knew that I would think this is funny.

I wanted to giggle with them, knowing gleefully that this would be one of those perfect fish tales, bigger and better with each retelling.  The kind of story I love best.  But I couldn’t yet join them in the grinning.  I was still looking right at her with what had been genuine empathy and ears-to-hear, so I just bit my lips hard together, patted her on the leg, and turned around.  Teacher-Pat resumed his lesson, but no one heard another word.

 

Once the word freak shows up in the room, it’s hard to hear anything else.

 

I love this story ~ groups I speak to think it’s hilarious when I act it out.  Not everyone finds this funny, though.  My mother hates it ~ of course she does.  Someone called her daughter a name, out loud and intentionally.

I didn’t think it was funny when it happened to my daughter either.  Poor pastors’ kids.

And really, the big picture here is not funny at all.

This occurs so often in our people-groups ~ school, work, church ~ name-calling, judgment and condemnation, gossip and slander uncontrolled, encouraged even as people sit by pools and coffee pots, so casually injuring others with words, both carelessly and carefully chosen, not understanding the seeds they are sowing nor caring that they are passing down the mantle of slander to their own children.

How do we survive?

 

Name-calling ~ “Insulting language referring to a person or group; verbal abuse” is one definition.  Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement states that when name-calling is used instead of a proper conversation or argument, it becomes a substitute for rational, fact-based discussion, based solely on the name-callers’ own bias and limited experience.

Wow.

This is how it looks.  We create small, narrow boxes of our preferences and opinions, and then stamp people with judgment labels of our own making.  We try to cram them into our ready-made boxes and when they don’t fit, we verbally stone them.

It’s really easy to get good at this.

Crazy.  Stupid.  Liar.  Heretic.  Mental.  Ugly.  Loser.  Sinner.  Freak. 

Shakespeare’s Macbeth said, “What’s done cannot be undone,” and, as always, he’s right.  Once spoken, one cannot un-hear these names.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” ~ that may be the dumbest statement I’ve ever heard.

Surely name-calling is one of the most destructive powers on earth.

 

Sometimes I just don’t see enough empathy blankets in the world, I’m sorry to say.  I’ve seen far too few in the church, in my experience.

Here’s the truth.  We are all under the same covers.  We need one another.  We all feel the same hard things throughout our days and ways ~ insecurity and anger, hatred and fear, sadness and loss.  The problem is that rather than huddling together in collective nests of empathy, gaining warmth and strength and love from each other, with the possibility that maybe some day we will be able to set the blankets aside and stand up again in better health, we seem to grab our own individual blankets, build fortresses apart from each other and just slowly fade away behind computer screens.

Or equally sad, no, worse, we huddle lonely under our blanket-tents and lob anger grenades and the poison darts of gossip and vitriole at each other from afar. Whispering-lips at the water cooler and condescending-eyes at the door of the church nursery.  Sub-tweets and passive-aggressive Facebook posts. Mean, vindictive, polarizing.

Some people even speak this way in the name of Christianity.

 

We call each other names now on a world stage.

 

Who can withstand?  Where is the empathy, the kindness?  What would happen if we choose beautiful words instead?  What would happen if we could just be quiet sometimes?  What if the world could actually see and know that we are Christians by our love?

 

In Dostoevsky’s magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri asks an incredible question, “Can there be beauty in Sodom?”  He wants to know if beauty and goodness can exist in the midst of ugliness and cruelty ~ he’s having trouble believing that it can.  He is in anguish; he has been set aside, overlooked, labeled freakish, and now he prepares to respond in great violence, to kill his father.

Wait!  Try not to despair, Brother-Dmitri, there is still great gentleness and kindness, acceptance and love, even in Sodom, even for freaks.  People on roads less traveled still arrive with blankets of empathy and warm cups of kindness ~ your own brother Alyosha is on his way.

Open your eyes.  Look in other places, unexpected ones ~ there are other people who are broken, like you.

If you are wounded and bleeding, go to the hospital, not the opera, where everyone seems clean and whole.

If you are lonely, try a church group, at least give it a try.  Some of them are wonderful with other broken people who might understand your pain because they remember their own. There’s often more there than just doughnuts and coffee.  If you find a bad one, don’t give up ~ keep trying.  I have found a few.

If you are a freak, like me, look for your circus. Because the truth is, that’s how we all feel sometimes, and your fellow circus performers might actually understand you a bit more than you think.

 

Seek and you shall find.

 

Go Google Nick Vujicic, a man born with no arms or legs. Certainly he understands better than most how it feels to be called a freak.  I’ve included his magnificent little film entitled The Butterfly Circus.  I implore you to watch it.  This film could change your world in twenty short minutes.

If I were telling this story to my students at school, I might allow my language to devolve to the vernacular for a moment and say something like this, my little three-fingered-fist held high ~ “Join me, ladies, in embracing our inner-freak, locate it, own it, strap it on and wear it loud and proud.  Let’s grab our blankets and huddle close in love and empathy for each other.  Ignore the naysayers and together let’s build some nests!”

Wait ~ I think that’s exactly what I’ll say.

 

Please watch the movie.  Especially if you have ever felt like a freak.  Especially you.