With care and diligence, amateur astronomy can offer a satisfying reprieve.
When a star like our Sun burns through all its hydrogen, it expands outward as a red giant before collapsing inward as a white dwarf, the fading core of a dead star.
Burnout, it seems, is truly universal.
For humans on Earth, burnout is an extended state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It was surprisingly common even before the pandemic. Burnout is generally thought to result from a high-stress work environment but can have other causes. It’s not the same as depression, though the two can occur together. There’s even something called “supernova burnout,” which applies to overachievers.
Then there’s autistic burnout, which stems from the pervasive, chronic stress of trying to exist within a neurotypical world, with all of its sensory stimuli and social expectations. For neurodivergent people like me, bone-deep fatigue, impaired executive and cognitive function, raw emotions, and meltdowns are common. Overwhelm lurks around every corner.
No matter what kind you suffer from, burnout is the pits. Feeling like the smoldering core of a dead star can last for weeks, months, or even years, and recovery can be slow. Burnout often impacts every part of your life, including the pursuits and passions that otherwise bring you joy.
When your personal batteries are depleted, chasing celestial prey can offer a much-needed glimmer of delight — if you’re willing to let go a little.
I have to be careful sometimes not to spiral down a stress hole when observing. Like when it’s 2 a.m., I’ve been outside in the cold for hours, and nothing is going right. Just five more minutes, yeah? Just one more try aligning an uncooperative Go-To telescope. One more attempt at the easy Deep Sky Object that everyone on Earth but me can find in a snap. This stubborn, self-defeating narrative can beat you down like a white dwarf’s gravity.
In those moments, I try to remind myself why I stepped outside to begin with. If that distant nebula doesn’t want to be found, I can ease my instrument a couple of degrees in any direction and enjoy that view instead.
When I first hunted for the Andromeda Galaxy in my 15X70 Levenhuk binoculars, I swept the sky and kept consulting Sky Safari on my phone as I wondered, "Is that it? Or is that it?" I was tired and in pain. I didn’t want to make things worse, so I gave up on M31. Naturally, that’s when I happened upon a big blurry spot in the sky and exclaimed, "WHAT IS THAT?!" — likely startling the nocturnal wildlife.
THAT was the Andromeda Galaxy. I’d gotten out of my own way and stopped overthinking things. But even when giving up doesn’t miraculously bring my intended target into view, I can still have a successful stargazing session. Because “successful” doesn’t have to mean checking off items on a to-do list. Amateur astronomy doesn’t have to be a competitive sport. There’s a powerful argument to be made for the serenity of aimless exploration.
Not that these stargazing strategies cure or reverse burnout. The truth is, stargazing alone won’t keep you from feeling like a neutron star: a dense, collapsed mass of fatigue, no longer radiating heat, and trying hard not to become a black hole. You have to identify why you’re burned out and, with support, find ways to mitigate it — or even to jettison yourself from the situations causing it.
But stargazing is an easy balm. This accessible hobby temporarily lifts the weight of burnout off my chest. Sitting outside with the stars — and, yes, a couple of raccoons — for company, I am removed from many of the stimuli and concerns that compound my burnout. The night sky offers literal space and quiet, and it lets me take in as much or as little awe and wonder as I can handle.
The first month of this year was especially tough, and finding the “green comet” on an unexpectedly clear night was a work of minor magic. Nestled between Ursa Minor and our backyard arborvitae trees, the sight of C/2022 E3 (ZTF) brought me a hushed thrill and a much-needed spark. I was exhausted and dragging, but seeing the tiny dot of light inside that fuzzy smudge in my telescope eyepiece made me ridiculously happy.
With care and grace, burnout can be eased. Life can look different, but I’d like to think that's a good thing — just as some white dwarf stars can be born again. They don’t burn as bright or as long as they did before, but they’ve managed to reignite. They are beautiful and mighty in their second life. Under a clear, dark sky, I feel a similar rekindling.