inspiring possibilities or detached-from-reality dangers?
I frequently get pulled into trains of thought about my alternate lives. In multiverse movies, this would be my different timelines, ones where I became a movie star or a kung fu fighter (ala Everything Everywhere All At Once) or, for me, ones where my creative yearning manifested in different fields (visual art, dance, acting) or didn’t manifest at all. I imagine a world where I moved to a different city straight out of college, one where I didn’t get that tech startup internship my sophomore year and struggled to “get in” the tech bubble without that golden ticket of a name, the one where COVID didn’t strike so soon and I actually I went on that planned trip to Iceland for the drive around Ring Road, the more drastic ones where I wasn’t born with social anxiety and loved talking to people.
With the craze around ChatGPT lately, Carolyn came up with an ingenious way to use it to imagine and explore these alternate timelines. They created a multiverse mapper prompt template where you can add your personal details to get tailored responses of alternate timelines. I tried it out and although they were mostly pretty out there and humorous, it still feels like a very powerful way to remind you about the possibilities your life contains. It’s a nice reminder for breaking free of the illusion of the local maxima or that you’re stuck on your current path for the rest of your life.
This power doesn’t come without risk. I was talking to S about this recently, and she mentioned the danger of idolizing alternate lives as a form of self-pitying. And the Multiverse Mapper can make it all too easy to intellectualize alternative paths and never attempt to live them. You get the reward of knowing what might be without having to do the work to see what life will actually turn out like.
I know these dangers all too well. Growing up, I resented my anxiety. It felt like playing with a handicap. I clawed at my stomach as if that would shut my insatiable pits. I yanked at my legs as a form of aggressive prayer to stop the shaking. I closed my eyes and imagined happy places—trite images of idyllic dreams: floating in the middle of a pristine alpine lake or wandering a misty forest trail—hoping they would fool me into pacification.
I never managed to trick myself. And because of that, I found myself imagining a world where the problem had never existed. I wondered about an alternate timeline where I was effortlessly charismatic. The kind of guy who could walk into a crowded room without a soul they knew, insert themselves into groups of lifelong friends, and become a natural part of their timelines, the same as if they’d been with them all along.
When I was solo traveling for the first time in Budapest during a dark winter, I stayed at a hostel, the kind for young people where the bar would be bumping all night long. After a day of exploring, I lingered outside the double doors to the bar, attempting to casually peer my head in to survey the scene. I longed for company but was too scared to go in. Instead, I rationalized going to bed early: I have an early day packed with plans tomorrow, and only have a few days to see it all. I don’t really need to socialize with them, what does it matter anyways? I won’t see any of them again.
When I talk to other people about my current state of being intimate with so many different paths in front of me, wanting to have all of them, several have brought up Sylvia Plath’s fig tree anecdote:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
—Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar
It’s often referenced as a warning, to admonish sitting around thinking about alternate paths for your life rather than living them. It’s used in the way a well-meaning, slightly overbearing parent chides their child when they’re daydreaming all the time, tells them to go do their homework or practice the piano. It’s a push to do something now, to make something of your life rather than dreaming of different ones.
But I’ve found that single-minded pushing only makes me dread jumping into an alternate path more. I push, and Existential Angst pushes back with twice the force. Forcing makes things worse, so where do we go from here? It’s okay to be unproductive, to sit with your loss and wanderings. I need to grieve past lives, properly mourn them, before I can move on; otherwise, they haunt me like ghosts with unsettled grievances, questioning whether I made the right choice after all. Maybe we don’t need to pressure ourselves to always pick something with the weight of finality. Maybe we can meander along our paths, consider the figs that grow among us, and sample little nibbles at will. Some will die, we think too early. Others will pass on having finished their business. The dark wrinkled bodies at our feet aren’t to be lamented—they will come back as fresh seedlings. Fresh, plump life dreams in the spring.
Rather than limiting what-ifs, alternate lives feel like possibilities. Imaginations. Alternate dreams for inspiration. What if? As in, what if a piece of that different life could be seeded for my future? As in, what if I could take a piece of that attitude and form a practice around cultivating it? As in, what if I could direct my future to incorporate all these possibilities that inspire me, bit by bit? So the figs sprout, bloom, and ripen: a limitless bushel of dreams for me to sample from in my single life.