Gold foil illustration of stars


The Awareness of How Little We Really Know

There’s something unsettling about the idea of a black hole. To think that there’s a threshold beyond which there is no return, with everything that crosses it locked away forever, a treasure box of mysteries that can never be opened. But then again, most of life is like that. You are surrounded by event horizons wherever you go. You can sense it in the black void at the foot of the basement stairs, or while driving in a ghostly fog that seems to erase the world beyond your windshield, or when treading water in the ocean, feeling miles of heavy nothing below your kicking feet.

There’s a certain thrill to those moments, when you dangle yourself over the edge of the abyss, wondering what might be out there. Knowing it might be seething with powerful forces you’re unable to see, lurking right there in front of you. But before long, you turn back to the comfortable world you know—the world of streetlamps and door locks, and the lulling chatter of a TV left on in the other room.

The trouble is, you don’t know what you don’t know. So even when you think you’ve pulled back from the edge of the abyss, you might’ve wandered a few steps closer. Of course, you’d just as well prefer not to think about all those unknown unknowns. Every year, there are tens of thousands of people who simply vanish without a trace and are never found. It happens all the time. The owner of a little antiques shop in Wales leaves a note on the door saying, “Back in two minutes,” steps down the street to buy an apple and a banana, and is never seen again. The prime minister of Australia goes out for a swim before lunch on a Sunday, and soon enough a new election is held, and the search party is called off for good. An airliner full of passengers settles into its flight path and then disappears from the radar, as if it had never existed.

You don’t particularly care to know the proportion of murders that go unsolved for lack of leads, or how easily locks can be picked and systems can be hacked. Surely someone must’ve tested the integrity of the bridge under your feet, the roof over your head, the medicine you take, the water you drink every day. Surely someone would pass by and help you dig your way out of a snowbank, or notice that your boat still hasn’t returned by nightfall, having drifted well out of sight of land. Surely there’s some adult somewhere, keeping an eye on things.

But if we’re the adults, and there’s nobody else to watch out for us, it means we’re out here on our own, floating free. And no matter where you go, and no matter how safe you feel, you’re still treading water in the deep end, kicking away, vulnerable to forces you can’t control. Even now, the ocean of tomorrow is looming just outside your eyeline.

Maybe it’s healthy to soak in that feeling, to lean out over the edge and stare into the abyss, and remind ourselves of the weight of everything we don’t know. If only to get us to hold on tighter to the structures we do have —the handrail on the basement stairs, the fence around the playground, the rules and norms of a civil society. If we forgo the comfort of absolute certainty, we might be better adults for each other, asking more questions, wondering what we might be missing.

Maybe then we’d feel a little more at home in this mostly unknowable universe, making our peace with the chaos of it, even finding comfort in the responsibility it gives us. What might be out there? Nobody knows!

From chthonic, dwelling beneath the surface of the Earth. Pronounced “kthoh-sis.”