One theory of the universe is there is not one but an almost infinite number of universes. Here are two:
You lead a major proposal effort to win that next big contract. You spend more money than your company can afford. A lot of people think you’re on an irresponsible path to destroying the entire enterprise, but you see a once in a lifetime opportunity to break out. One day, an envelope arrives and you open it.
In one universe, you’ve grabbed the big brass ring. You’re a hero, toasted at the win party – the Board loves you, the employees love you, the shareholders love you. You are a visionary.
In another, bupkis. You’re never given that responsibility again – you humbly return to your previous status of company nebbisch. They don’t fire you – that would be too generous. Rather you keep your head low in your cubicle and hope if not for mercy, for anonymity.
Every day an uncountable number of outcomes occur – car accidents, encounters with old friends, wrong numbers dialed, glass stepped on – or not, you oversleep and show up late for an interview, but it provides an opportunity to show you can recover – or it doesn’t. Your immune system fights off a bug, or not, resulting in a week in bed – or at work, depending. In some of the cases where you succumb, it gets out of hand and you die, or you just infect everyone else in the house and they all miss a week of school or work. Each one of these events branches out into a new set of alternative universes. Imagine how many universes would be created per second, with billions of people and uncountable other creatures each doing things moment by moment. But infinity is big enough to contain any number of universes, which makes this bizarre theory not provably wrong.
The web of alternative universes is not navigable – even our single universe is not knowable. It’s impossible to know what paths the universe we are tracking will lead us down, let alone all those billions of alternative universes and their propagation paths.
When your most beloved dies, your eyes are opened. You are forced to realize the impermanence of everything. Of course you always knew that in a logical sense. If someone asked you – where will you be in one hundred years, you’d know the answer – dead and gone. But until a big loss, that’s a complete abstraction you construct walls around, like a little nugget of Kryptonite, and you live comfortably knowing that box is there, but isn’t effecting you at the moment. Your loss breaches the box. Now it is not just real but abstract, at times a rapid dissolution into your eventual fate might seem even preferable to life without that person.
Your gaze penetrates deeply into depths you didn’t want to see. You liked living in the warm shallows – comfortable swimming the sunlit reefs of daily life with its bike rides, meals with friends, ocean swims, rock music and comforts of home, family and friends. You don’t want to see the dark unlit depths where the big predators are swimming, hunting, those cold and quiet waters. The shallows now seem an illusion of a previous life. You have your first experience in a new and frightening world, a reality more real than your present, temporal state. You spend time lost among the alternative universes you never before thought about – the lands of what if.
What if you had caught it sooner? What if you had been more aggressive? Tried that therapy instead of this one? Made the trip to the famous medical center? Not loaned the keys, made one more phone call, chosen a route off the main road. What if the ambulance arrived sooner, what if you’d had that one more test, chosen a different hobby, kept your child in home schooling, had that operation when you were still young or well enough to endure it, eaten more broccoli. What about the $600 you didn’t spend for ABS and traction control – or that job you didn’t take in the south where they don’t have snow, or the East where the earthquake probability is lower. Was that trip necessary at all? Can’t politicians work a little harder before calling up their armies? Had the disease struck 10 years later, a cure would have been available, cheap and effective.
And If death was inevitable, a proposition impossible to accept, what if you had been a better parent or spouse or friend, what if you hadn’t economized on that last vacation, what if you didn’t have that last fight over nothing? Less time at work and in front of the laptop, more time in dinner conversation. All those movies you didn’t see together, why not? The gift you hadn’t yet given, the words not yet spoken. The financial success that had always eluded you, your child’s graduation – couldn’t we have lived together for just one more milestone?
We can never know what is down all those roads – we can’t even see a day ahead on the road we’re on. Had you not had those fights, it wouldn’t have been your life and their life and your relationship – it would have been a Disney version. You could have flown all over the planet for a cure, only to exhaust your energy and bank balance and spoil your last months together in a fruitless, disappointing, Quixotic mission. Catch it sooner and suffer even more months of anxiety? Any number of disasters could have happened in that universe where you lived in the earthquake free midwest – a tornado, a tainted tomato, a drunk driver.
I don’t believe that outcomes are completely beyond human control. What we do matters – otherwise why pursue engineering, medicine, science – if the human condition has already been written in a book we can only read. But neither do we control many big things. There’s a Yiddish expression for our predicament of wishing we had navigated into a universe where we would have avoided our loss and our beloved’s suffering: Mann traoch, Gott Lauch. Man plans, God laughs.
But how could God allow this suffering of an innocent person – maybe a child? Now you find yourself reading thick philosophical tomes and thin pop-psyche pabulum. The infinite domain of the irrational where there is no map, no simple formula that spits out the answer. There are thousands of proposals – many created by humanity’s greatest intellects, but none of them any more than a convenient lens to imperfectly look at the unseeable unknowable. Like soaking in saltwater to extract toxins, there’s no harm in immersing your mind in all that thought and speculation until your skin is wrinkled and you just can’t wait to get out of the tub.
The wind is much stronger than I am. There are days it gusts so strong it’s impossible to make progress on a bicycle – or even stay upright. There is weather you and your aircraft are not going to penetrate in one piece. God is greater than I am, than my aircraft, than my muscles and machines, than my planning and my theories of the nature of all things. The only choices are – exhaustion fighting or awaiting a better day.
Our only win strategy is to keep on keeping on – eventually a cold front will push through and I’ll coast in a massive tailwind, the skies will clear and freezing rain will be hard to imagine ever existed. And in those beneficent intervals, we’ll rebuild our travels, our itineraries, our plans, our temples, our houses, our relationships, our families and our lives.
Entropy is inexorable, but it is not the whole story. Human will can rebuild. Some of those great thinkers of the ancient world concluded that is our shared human mission – tikkun ha-olam – to build the world that is constantly subject to erosion by chaos. And in that rebuilding we experience God. We don’t understand why wind, rain, entropy fight us, but they are all part of the universe which was made for us to dwell in. One day we touch the wall 10 milliseconds sooner and grab the bronze, and another day we crouch in our cubicle, the thin envelope cast aside but nonetheless the biggest object in the office. Our only choice is to keep building. The effort may or may not be futile – we can never know if what we do can make a difference – that is written only in the unfolding of the many virtual universes yet to be selected. It is only faith, the floating plank we cling to, that doing is preferable to not doing. But while we soak in salty waters that doing distracts us from the sting.