When in one of our more philosophical moods, my wife and I like to play a game. We don’t have a name for it, but I like to think of it as “If I Had Another Life.” In this game, we think of all the other lives we’d like to live if given the chances to do this whole thing over. Of course, we are always married to one another, but in one life, I’m a bestselling author and she is a surgeon. In another, I’m a respected professor of cinema at USC and she is a criminal lawyer, locking away the baddies. We don’t think about whether these lives are compatible. The fun is just exploring what life could be like had we another chance.
I recently read Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, in which his depressed protagonist, Nora Seed, explores this very concept. When Nora doesn’t believe she has much to live for, she ends it all one night with a concoction of wine and sleeping pills. Shockingly, she awakens in an endless library run by her elementary school librarian, Mrs. Elm (note the tree of life themes in this book). The books that occupy the shelves of this mystical library are all of Nora’s potential lives. It is an endless collection of stories she could have lived, given an endless amount of time. Nora’s task, find one that is right for her since the one she’s currently living is unsatisfying.
Reminiscent of allegorical books like The Alchemist, The Midnight Library doesn’t hide the theme inside its pages, but holds it up to its readers and examines it. And what is that theme? Potential.
This theme hangs over the entire work like dangling fruit. As Nora’s life branches off like the limbs of a tree, the one thing that remains (the trunk, if you will) is potential. We may spend our time entertaining all the lives we could have lived, yet we rarely realize that our potential to exist in those timelines is always with us. This is what Haig drives home. You and I have the potential to become that doctor, or dance on Broadway, or climb the Swiss Alps, or snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef. We only need to realize it and harness it.
Yet, the multiverse is a strange thing. While we might have the potential to be and do all the things we’ve ever wanted in life, that doesn’t mean it will happen. Just like focusing on a goal doesn’t make that goal a reality, but the choices along the way do. Bobby Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--/I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.” Notice it wasn’t the end destination that pushed him along that less-trodden path, but the potential for choice. So yes, while we may pursue a dream with all the raw and electric potential inside our being, it’s the choices that shape our universe. In one life, we may hit the alarm to snooze another five minutes, while in another we wake up before the alarm and get started on what needs to be done. Neither one is right or wrong, and the potential is still the same, but the choice made shapes that universe. Mrs. Elm, Nora’s librarian, puts it perfectly, “Never underestimate the big importance of small things.”
The idea Haig plays with in The Midnight Library is one of great interest to me. What if I woke up in a library with all my potential lives sitting on endless bookshelves? Which one would I pick? Every one of them, I’m sure, has joy and sorrow, gain and loss, destruction and rebirth, but the idea of an entirely different life is exciting. But may I remind you (and myself) that the potential is there for all of those daydream lives. I like that idea, that raw potential is inside everyone. If anything, it makes our dreams seem a little more within reach.