Around the holidays, it seems both joy and sadness have great potential for becoming amplified in our daily experiences. Surrounded by gifting ideas, lights everywhere, and elven glee, our cultural attention rests on prosperity and community, and understandably so: how could excess cheer possibly be a problem? For people in the throes of excess loneliness, though, personal angst can throw shade on any celebration. Whether caused by recent loss or long-term circumstances, loneliness does not necessarily welcome the holidays and associated revelry. Rather than experience deeper depths, perhaps the soul is best protected with neutrality, avoiding the constant reminders that others seem to possess more company, more support, more whatever human need is not being met. Even for the not-so-lonely, the holiday hubbub might be followed by a letdown period, a temporary dip below the baseline. For all of us, the holidays issue reminders of reality, whether by soft whisper or blunt nudge. Excess food and drink might inspire lifestyle changes. Friction with family is evidence of unconditional (albeit irritating) love. A fun New Year’s vacation is immediately followed by the regular workday drudgery in early January.
And for some, the sense of serious isolation is reaffirmed. Emotional isolation and loneliness can bring on despair, juxtaposed by the season of light, where pleasant feelings are paramount. This is a time of love, gratitude and joy. We might feel hope for the future, a resonance in fellowship for a more peaceful world — inherently good things.
In her essay “Abandon Hope”, Pema Chödron writes that “hope and fear is a feeling with two sides”, where these are like two sides of the same coin (The Pocket Pema Chödron, Shambhala 2008). The potential problem: a sense of hope having a basis in lack is always looking for a change, something to improve, thereby keeping us out of the present moment. Hope without a clear acceptance of reality sours the intentional spirit of positive change. To release hope is positive action, assuring our awareness stays in the now. When I first shared this idea with yoga students, I had trouble understanding why a sense of hope would not always be a good thing. Isn’t hope all about a warm, fuzzy light overcoming the darkness of despair?
Subtly, hope carries a risk of staying in the future, thereby avoiding the present. As for excessive wallowing in the past after a difficult lesson, clinging to hope in the spirit of fear or denial is like wallowing in the future. This is the source of elusive “thoughts and prayers”, the hope often accompanied by inaction. Many of us have grown weary of this generously stated phrase after mass shootings, even if wishing solace for victims and their families is inherently kind and appropriate. With no intention towards meaningful action to prevent violence, “thoughts and prayers” becomes a hollow sentiment. Finding balance in hope is about having just enough to stay rooted in reality, without losing the present moment perspective.
The various imperfections in our lives are completely mirrored in nature. Examples include random errors in DNA replication and flaws in crystals, both spontaneous processes occurring without cause, their rates dictated purely by probability. More broadly, the entire universe has a tendency towards higher disorder, or entropy, and crystal flaws are one microcosmic example of nature leaning towards disorder. Crystals are highly regular arrangements of atoms—and they are mostly perfect in the sense that their positions are very, very regular, like each atom or ion has a designated row house. The gemstone sapphire is a form of aluminum oxide (corundum, or α-Al2O3), containing a few other trace ions responsible for its color. There are many types of flaws in crystals: the point defects of missing or displaced atoms are examples of crystal imperfection. A sapphire phone screen has a bunch of ions missing. The amounts vary depending on synthesis temperature and substance, but at around the melting point of sapphire (2040 °C or ≈3600 °F), where a crystal could be grown, about one in a million ions are missing or misplaced off their atomic real estate. When the crystal cools, the defects are frozen in place (and yet, the screen is not defective!). The amounts are so tiny that the structure itself is not disturbed, the scratch resistance, transparency and capacitance of the screen unaffected. A million Al2O3 formula units would fit in a cube with a 35-nanometer edge, or about 100 aluminum and oxide ions, and there are about 100,000 trillion cubes in a phone screen. This is like a single missing brick in a solid wall the size of a garden patio (say 30 x 30 sq. ft), about 3 stories high. One brick missing in a million is no big deal. Like the stability of the crystal structure, this defect doesn’t become a structural problem until many more bricks are missing.
That missing brick (or atom) creates entropy. All matter in the universe has entropy, and entropy is always positive (always), and can never be zero (never). The lowest entropies are held by defect-free single crystals approaching the temperature of absolute zero (-273 °C, or -460 °F). The colder the crystal, the lower the entropy. Further, the third law of thermodynamics says we can’t ever reach absolute zero, where entropy is goose egg, zilch, zero.
For that giant brick wall, where can the missing brick be? Any one of a million spots. Those many possible configurations, after a simple formula, become the Boltzmann definition of entropy. The same entropy exists with the single missing atom or ion. For a million atoms in a crystal, a single missing atom means a million possibilities for that vacancy. Missing 2 atoms? There are even more configurations, which grow according to probability theory and great big huge numbers: a million squared, essentially. These large numbers of possibilities generate entropy.
How might our understanding of entropy relate to hope? Entropy is impossible to avoid in nature, since zero temperature is theoretically out of reach. So, even in the depths of sadness, there’s always some “disorder towards better” in the tortured soul. In a state of despair, hope is the very thing that saves us. It is “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” (Emily Dickinson) Hope is Dickinson’s fluttering bird, that little bit of entropy in an otherwise fixed, dark space. Even in the lowest of our lows, we wake up to another day, and something – an elusive internal pilot light – is carrying us forward, ready to be lit with the fire of better days. The biological imperative towards survival is totally at play, always. Challenges merely test us, and all bets are on entropy, the forever winner in life’s thermodynamic hand. As in our consciousness, the future sits with vast possibility and outcome before collapsing into the present. That something enabling us to move forward, even with great weight and minimal aspiration, is hope, our entropic “lean-in” to the universal tendency : it “never stops at all”.
With despair, in contrast, what do we have? A single possibility, loaded with mistaken ideas that things will never change, everything is permanent, fixed, with no space for creation of entropy. With only one possibility, entropy is zero. In this dark space, there is a lot of must and should, always and never. However, zero entropy is an unphysical concept, and therefore not applicable to humans as physical beings. Therefore, despair itself, in that it might make us think there are no options, is an illusion. The hope taking us out of these depths is entirely in the present moment and most certainly accompanied by fear and anxiety, as Chödron writes. This is a deeply personal hope nestled closely to our own life force.
As the major events of life might bring out both our best and worst, on a daily basis we are creatures of nature, meant to obey the laws of physics as much as all other matter. Consciousness is included as much as our physical bodies as thermodynamic engines. It is not truly possible for us to drop to the zero entropy of static despair; even in those lows, something else carries us, promising that everything in this life is transient. What doesn’t change is our inner light, our identity outside of all the impermanence.
Maria Gelabert, Ph.D.
Science and Mindfulness