I’ve been in a bit of a creative desert recently (maybe I need to eat more creative desserts). I don’t form connections between disparate things in the same way that I used to, likely in part because I am growing as a person!?
For context, I had, on the whole, a pretty tragic childhood. And in most ways I had an absence of a childhood altogether. From an early age I was thinking about reality, predestination (I was raised Catholic), parallel dimensions and constantly wondering “of all of the hands I could’ve been dealt, why was I dealt this one?”
This brought me to a place of assigning meaning to arbitrary things because I wanted there to be a point to the trauma I endured. Even in college, when I would tell people about some of my experiences I’d tie them up in a bow and say “but in the end, I’m grateful for that nightmare because it made me the person I am today.”
One of my favorite movies as a teenager was Jeff, Who Lives at Home. The movie features Jason Segel as Jeff, a stoner who lives with his mom. Jeff doesn’t know what to do with his life so he looks for answers wherever he can find them and takes great inspiration from M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 horror film Signs.
Jeff decides to follow the sign of “Kevin” after getting a wrong phone call for someone named Kevin and it leads him to unexpected places.
The film has a sort of new sincerity vibe and is heartfelt and absurd, and I loved it so much because it offered me a means of applying meaning to my own life (which was almost certainly not the point).
One example: I took a gap year between high school and college because I got a horrible financial aid package from my dream school and couldn’t swallow taking out $200k in loans to become a journalist. I needed to save money and also to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I ended up applying to a bunch of schools during my gap year.
On a whim, I applied to the University of Washington because my step-brother lived outside of Seattle and absolutely loved it. I really wanted to go out of state, and of the places I got in, UW was the cheapest by a lot (I could also graduate in <3 years because it was a public school that took my community college/IB credits from high school), so it was ultimately the most reasonable/feasible option.
So even though it was very clear that I’d be going to UW, when I flew out to visit Seattle for the first time I was beside myself when my seatmate was a boy named Kevin who was also considering going to UW the next year. I’d also see people wearing UW hats out and about and think “wow, this is a sign, I think I found the school for me!”
Of course, the funny part is that I didn’t notice the hats from other colleges, which probably outnumbered the UW hats by a lot.
But that frame of mind was something I’d developed to cope with the trauma of my childhood. I needed it to make sense because it was too painful otherwise. I remember sitting in church and hearing about how God loved me, but then wondering “if God loves me, why is my life so freaking hard?” Of course, these questions extend to the ends of the earth… “if there is a benevolent God, why is there any injustice at all in the world?” (I asked the priest at my church about this and he explained that there was injustice on earth because of the devil). So, I drew inspiration from stories of people who experienced things and were better for it on the other side. I tried to believe I was learning lessons of patience, self-control, and selflessness, and that I was always on my way to becoming a “better” and fundamentally different version of myself.
I also drew inspiration from my hopes for the future.
In particular, I grew up with three sets of cousins (all groups of 3 siblings) whose nuclear families and houses seemed like heaven. While I grew up sometimes in literal poverty and other times solidly middle class, they grew up with some combination of playing on traveling competitive soccer teams, living in gated communities, and/or going to private schools. They all had siblings to hang out and experience stuff with, and parents who were still together.
I never resented them, but I did want desperately to be one of them. When I’d see them during the holidays I’d try to emulate them; if I closed my eyes I could pretend I, too, had a deep sense of belonging.
Sometimes the differences in our circumstances felt Dickensian, but instead of harping on my genetic proximity to a much better life, I used my cousins’ lives as the inspiration for my daydreams. I figured if I made myself deserving enough, someday I might be welcomed as one of their own. I imagined the plush carpet and unconditional love to come, and while it didn’t turn out quite like I expected, my daydreams were a life preserver while I was stranded. I would build forts out of blankets and tray tables and project my daydreams onto the fabric walls, and in doing so I found hope to persist through the pain I felt.
A few months ago, Phillip and I went to see Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it was my favorite movie of the year!
It’s a movie best seen without any prior context, so stop reading this if you still want to see it….
The plot is expansive, but one of the main aspects is that characters jump between parallel universes a la Universe Splitter (which I learned about from This American Life).
For example, say you had to decide between a PB&J and oatmeal for lunch. In the base universe (the one you’re in), you choose the PB&J. In the movie you might jump to a parallel universe where you chose the oatmeal. And because of the butterfly effect a lot of stuff could be different in that universe, but most importantly you see how happy and full you felt after eating the oatmeal.
In one universe jump in the movie, a woman who is married and has a daughter sees herself in a parallel universe where she chose a career as a movie star over marrying her home-universe spouse. The movie doesn’t entirely pass judgment on which path she took at any given point (though in the end she finds gratitude for her life in her home universe alongside her husband and daughter). Instead, it shows her the consequences of her decisions. Those consequences are not necessarily good or bad; they just ~are~.
I’ve been re-reading The Man Without Qualities, and in my well-loved copy I re-discovered a quote I jotted down on the title page: “it could just as easily be some other way.”
When I was a kid, this perspective wouldn’t have served me. I kept afloat via daydreams about the far-off future, but had little control over the near-term. It was painful to think of myself as unlucky and much better to try to fit my hardship into some zoomed-out grand plan for the role I was meant to play in the world. It was painful to think I might have been collateral damage of the randomness and absurdity of life.
But, finally, as an adult, I find it freeing. I imagine Christine-prime in some parallel universe where the Kansas child custody laws are different. Christine-prime has it pretty good, but she’s a very different person. And she probably never met Phillip. And she probably doesn’t even live in NYC (one of my other daydreams as a kid).
So when I imagine Christine-prime, I’m happy at least one of us grew up without the baggage of a deeply traumatic childhood. But I also feel sorry for her that she probably hasn’t met Phillip and doesn’t live in NYC (among other things). That doesn’t mean I’m grateful for my childhood or the abuse or the poverty, but I have come to a place of acceptance.
I think the passage I love in TMWQ is actually more about a celebration of what could be than a means of accepting what was. I’m realizing, though, that my daydreams (and thoughts of ‘what could be’) give me a very humble appreciation for the absurdity of what is and, as an extension, what was.
Anyone possessing it does not say, for instance: Here this or that has happened, will happen, must happen. He uses his imagination and says: Here such and such might, should or ought to happen. And if he is told that something is the way it is, then he thinks: Well, it could probably just as easily be some other way. So the sense of possibility might be defined outright as the capacity to think how everything could ‘just as easily’ be, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not.
-Musil, The Man Without Qualities