The Intrigue of Parallel Universes

These recent thoughts all started last November thanks to an article Fox News had posted about how time travel could be possible through the use of parallel worlds. The story itself had originally appeared in UK’s The Sun, and it had come into my life as a recommended story via Google News thanks to their algorithms.

Needless to say, I wasn’t getting my bags packed to head over to the world where the dinosaurs never died or the one where the gorilla-size lemur was alive and well. The story, though, did lead to some fascinating conversations among my honors students that went a little something like this:

“If you were to visit a parallel world, you would have to quickly kill the other version of you, for both of you could not exist in one universe,” one of them said.

“Death? Really? Couldn’t we just partner up and take on the world – either that one, this one, or another?” I asked.

“Nope. He would just kill you, so you have to shoot first,” another answered.

“Nah, we would be too excited about having another one of us around to even think about homicide. Or would that be suicide?” I replied.

“Well, I guess we know which Ryan is not going to make it.”

Before jumping to another topic, the conversation went on for another twenty-minutes or so with my believing I could be friends with the Other Ryan while they assured me it was kill or be killed to avoid a rip in the very fabric of time itself.

The Fox News article was based upon a 2014 publication in Physical Review X, which inspired quite a few news stories when it was first released, in which the authors investigated quantum theory and a “many interacting world” approach. This gets into the concept of an infinite number of universes where every possibility may have played out. This concept itself could easily play with one’s mind as one things about how every decision we made just today could have spawned thousands of other universes in theory.

From there, the topic of parallel universes has resurfaced repeatedly in my life.

Of course, there was the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, with George Bailey getting a glimpse of what the world would have been like if he would never have been born.

Then two of my very good friends directed me to Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar response that concluded with the beautiful imagery of our saluting the ghost ship that didn’t carry us, the other life we didn’t live.

YouTube caught a drift of this common theme and recommended a video about The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where Cordelia was granted her wish that created a world where Buffy never came to Sunnydale.

That may have been caused by my fascination during the month of December with the Lumineer’s videos that played upon this concept with at least three of their videos being connected with a storyline all tied to choices made that created another parallel world. Here they are in the order they were not released but in the one I think they go:

Once Upon a Time’s winter finale brought the alternative universe trope into its storyline.

Then the one movie I watched in the theatre during winter break, La La Land, had near its end a powerfully haunting montage of a world that could have existed in another universe but not that one. It squeezed the heart while what might have been played out.

This concept of parallel worlds is nothing new though in my life. In fact, my favorite childhood movie of all times, Clue, played heavy on this conceit. Then Sliding Doors, another movie I referenced in another entry about time, also hit the point home about how even the smallest of things happening could easily send the trajectory of one’s life in a different direction. A chance conversation never happens or perhaps it does. In these worlds, all of the Craigslist’s Missed Connections were never missed (If you are not familiar with them, I recommend checking out Craigslist, clicking on a major city, and reading some of the Missed Connections or perhaps a better and easier idea would be to read this single horribly romantic one to get the idea).

The question, though, is what is it about our fascination with parallel worlds that causes these to play out time and again on TV, in movies, in books, in songs, and in our mind. The Buffy video concludes by saying, “We’re all, in a way, trapped in time . . . bound to travel in one continuous direction – only forward. But there is always an allure to looking backward and wondering, ‘A different choice, a different doorway, a couple more seconds. Would we have become someone else?’”

And that may be it. This fascination could all come back to ourselves. Every time we watch, read, or contemplate a parallel world, we think about our own lives and what they would be like if we would have struck up that initial conversation or wouldn’t have, gone for that kiss or wouldn’t have, gotten that job or wouldn’t have, read that book that changed your life or wouldn’t have, stayed close with an old friend or wouldn’t have, said those words or wouldn’t have, and so forth. The possibilities are endless, and the same could be said about parallel worlds for that matter.

Besides onslaught of examples thrown in my direction from the world around me, the concept has probably been on my mind more lately thanks to my having almost spent a decade of my life in Hutchinson, Kansas. If anyone would have told me in late June of 2007 the next ten years of my life would be spent here, a perplexed look would have come their way. The plan was either to find work in New York City or pursue a PhD in English. Given the flooded market for the latter, Dr. Ryan in that parallel universe would have been jumping around looking for a tenure track position but likely doing a lot of adjunct work as he attempted to pay off a massive student loan debt.

The life of NYC Ryan, though, is what intrigues me.

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It hit even harder after walking around Seattle’s Capitol Hill last October when I was in the city for a conference. For a glimmer of a second, I caught a glance of the Ryan who lived in a major city and would get together with close friends for dinner and drinks on a Friday night in such a place with that kind of vibe.  His place may have been small and expensive, but he didn’t mind because he could walk anywhere, and whatever craving of food he had, a restaurant was an easy jaunt away. Then more than likely, he would be sharing all of this with a partner. More than likely he would be married, and he may even be a father.

NYC Ryan, though, never would have stepped on Hutchinson Community College’s campus. The classes would have been taught by someone else. The students would have learned English Composition from that person instead, and the fairy tales course that hundreds upon hundreds have taken never would have existed. The honors program would have had a different unofficial assistant director and then a different director. Someone else would have filled Hutchinson Ryan’s spots on all of the different committees and task forces, and someone else would be in his current job now.

NYC Ryan also would have missed out on all of the activities in the community. Another person would have served in Hutchinson Ryan’s place on the various boards and in the different groups. Someone else would have taken charge of the different initiatives Hutchinson Ryan had led.

Then there are Emi and Callie.

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NYC Ryan never would have known the feeling of having Callie cuddling next him as they enjoyed a peaceful Friday night on the couch alone with Emi sitting nearby in her favorite perch watching everything below her in true cat fashion.

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Never would he have sleepily smiled as Callie woke him up for her very early breakfast with her morning eagerness, watched the hijinks of Emi attacking imaginary monsters, or known what it was like to try to make a bed or put away socks with her help. Callie and Emi would never have met and served as another great example of how a dog and a cat can be the best of friends, for Callie may never have been adopted from the animal shelter, and Emi more than likely would have lived her life at a salvage yard.

Finally, NYC Ryan never would have known the majority of people Hutchinson Ryan does.

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His world would be extremely different. The conversations, meals with friends, the community partnerships, the dates, the relationships, and, most importantly, the great friendships Hutchinson Ryan has had since 2007 never would have occurred, for NYC Ryan’s path would likely have never crossed in such a way with those Hutchinson Ryan has been blessed to get to know over the years, and perhaps those people’s lives would have then been very different as well. Many of the people reading this blog right now would be doing something very different with your lives, for in the NYC Ryan universe, you likely never would have met or known a Ryan Diehl.

That is the thing, though, about parallel universes. Just as we may have missed out on the life experiences of our parallel selves, they have missed out on our life experiences too. Perhaps right now, in one of those parallel universes, your parallel self is sitting there and longing for the life you currently have.

Another recent quotation that has come into my life over the last couple of weeks is “Somebody once told me the definition of hell: On our last day of earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.” At the same time, perhaps the definition of heaven can be something similar with your meeting the person you may have become if you had let all of those things of great and true value slip from your grasp. Just on the safe side, a life mission should be to become the better of the selves on your last day on this planet.

Perhaps, one day travel to parallel universe will be possible as we get to see how making even something as simple as having cereal rather than a kale and fruit smoothie for breakfast altered one’s existence. Until then though, we should, as Cheryl Strayed recommended with the ghost ships, give them a head nod and a smile before going back to feeling grateful for all of the great things in your current life in your current universe now.

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