Maybe it’s true that we have one shot at living this life as best we can; I think most of us probably believe that. We live it, we stress about it, we complain about it, we put down markers to celebrate its cycles, and we do it again and again, day after day, week after week, year after year.
On the other hand, it’s hard to escape the romantic and mysterious temptation of the multiverse, the theoretical existence of an infinite number of parallel universes where different versions of ourselves are living alternate versions of this life. Every other movie now feels like it has a multiverse subplot (or main plot) so let’s join the party.
So what do we think—is this it, or are there parallel others of us out there doing everything, everywhere, all at once?
In another version, or in an infinite number of other versions, things could be radically different, but once you go down the rabbit hole of the multiverse, there may be no going back because it gets complicated right away. Did all of the other Dans out there start when I was born and then start diverging from that moment? In theory, yes, as the unique path I took/am taking has been the result of billions of decision points and sliding doors moments. In one version of this life perhaps when we lived in Pittsburgh in 1979 for a year we did not come back and I ended up a Steelers fan. In a different construct I went to Columbia and not Brandeis, never met my wife, and moved to Israel after graduation. I frequently tell the story of when I had three interviews on the same day in 2001—at a bank, a law firm and at a school…what if I had not been offered the teaching position?
The popsicle headache grows more painful when you realize not just how much power we had at critical moments to do things differently, but also you when you contemplate the massive number of other, smaller decisions and actions that led us to those inflection points. And if that’s true about the past, then it must be true about the future as well.
Which leads us to Rosh Hashanah. The New Year is here, the Book of Life will be opened, and then sealed on Yom Kippur, and in between those two bookends (clever, no?) we will contemplate some of the bad things we’ve been up to. After that we’ll build our Sukkot, enjoy our apples and gourds, and set off on another trip through the lunar year. The older we get, the more we appreciate the reliability and sameness of this cycle, and these rituals; they are comforting, nostalgic, spiritual and offer us formulaic ways to affirm our commitment to tradition.
Similarly, our normal lives also follow predictable patterns—we go to work, we shuttle our kids to their activities seasonally, we celebrate birthdays and graduations, we look forward to time off and we plan things in advance. And really, we embrace the sameness—most of us will not move away from Boston, most of us do not act impulsively, and most of us will not take a new job next year. For all our complaining, we are actually fairly change- and risk-averse.
It could be true that somewhere else in the multiverse a very different version of myself may be doing something quite different than this, but unless he pops over here for a visit I’ll never know. The quasi-uncomfortable truth, though, is that we are all capable of changing things up, and the cascading consequences of a thousand decisions we make every day are actually impossible to see no matter how constrained we feel by the structures we have built for ourselves.
With that being said, for all we do to keep control over our lives, a lot can happen to wrest it away, and despite our alleged, or preferred, certainty, we don’t really know what the coming year will hold. We have a sense for its contours, and we know what we currently plan on doing, but in reality it’s all up for grabs. Four years ago no one could have foreseen what COVID would unleash. Last year I don’t think most of us considered that Russia would invade Ukraine. No one can predict accidents, or natural disasters, or on the flip side, meeting your future partner at a party or winning the lottery, and despite our best intentions we are at the mercy of unpredictable outcomes.
And while we like to say that history repeats itself, and that’s at least a little true, the only thing that actually does repeat itself are our sacred occasions and the fact that for all of our certainties about what we believe the future will hold, we can never really know it. Anything can, will and has happened.
The multiverse is this one.
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