about the black box

Recently, I have developed an obsessive listening habit to a podcast of a radio show on NPR called “Radio Lab”. This quirky and sometimes strange show seems to perfectly meld the worlds of science, culture, art, and philosophy into one powerful package. The few episodes I have listened to cover how we judge, time, continuous loops, and how things end. They take these topics and look at them from several different angles using very unique and captivating storytelling.

Now that my sales pitch is done (this post isn’t about Radio Lab – just really enjoy the show) I want to focus in on a certain episode called “Black Box”. When you hear “Black Box”, you might think of a flight recorder on an airplane, but for philosophers and scientists it means something quite different. The “Black Box” is described as a moment in time where someone enters a darkness and comes out the other side different – but neither the one going through this moment or the one witnessing it know what happened in the middle.

It is a complete mystery.



The main example they use is going under an anesthetic. There seems to be a moment for a patient where everything just stops, then suddenly they are in another room. They didn’t really sleep or even dream – they were gone, then back again.

The really amazing story they tell is about something we all learned about in elementary science class – metamorphosis. Now, I always assumed I understood what happened to a caterpillar when it went into metamorphosis- it turns into a moth or a butterfly. Simple as that.

But, what I never thought about was what happens on the inside of the chrysalis during metamorphasis. I guess it never really mattered to me. I just assumed the caterpillar just sprung some wings and popped out.

The truth is quite different.

Apparently inside this “black box”, the caterpillar essentially turns into a goop of muscles, nerves, and other tissues. For a short time, it transforms into something quite different than itself. In this process a mysterious reordering and rebuilding happens by completely breaking down the old body and constructing something totally new and different.

chrysalis goop

This is a process that has captivated the attention of philosophers and scientists for ages and perfectly captures the metaphor of resurrection within a beautiful process of turning something small, slow, and insignificant as a caterpillar into something magnificent and awe-inspiring as the butterfly.

However we always avoid the part inside the chrysalis. What happens inside those walls would be easier left a mystery. We don’t really want to engage it or talk about it – we are just happy with the result.

Darkness in this world takes on a similar engagement. Often we are just happy when someone comes out the other side of a dark time, or how they are before they go into the darkness. We use thoughts like “do you remember how so-and-so used to be before they got into all that trouble?”, or “I am so amazed how so-and-so have gotten their act together and made something better of their lives.”

We see this in the litany of “before and after” shots from workout commercials. The sacrifice and pain don’t really make it into the marketing. It doesn’t sell.

As we have discussed this week, darkness is the real mystery of life. It cannot be ignored or escaped. It has to be engaged.

Maybe it is confession of darkness in our own lives. Perhaps it is looking darkness straight in the eye and calling it what it is. Or it might be walking alongside a darkness as one having light to make sure they don’t get lost.

As evidenced inside the “black boxes” of life, it is hard to know what is really going on inside these dark places. It is easy to make assumptions and critiques, but at the end we don’t really know. But, if we stick with those in dark places we might find there is a transformation taking place in a way we would have never chosen. Maybe, there is a process at hand that God is working with in his own mysterious way.

These “black boxes” can bring great uncertainty, but also some comfort in knowing there is a mysterious process at work that brings a transformation and more so – a resurrection.

Tell us what you think. How have dark times transformed you? What is different? What has engaging with someone going through a darkness taught you?

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