The multiverse and the problem of regret
Our collective imagination has been captivated of late by the idea of the multiverse. The narrative device of the multiverse has been prolific – from the Marvel cinematic universe to popular books and the Oscar-winning absurdist rollercoaster that is the film Everything Everywhere All at Once.
The theory of the multiverse comes from quantum mechanics in the field of physics, which is a little different from Hollywood trope – fewer epic battles and Spider-hams and more maths. The scientific model of the multiverse theorises that infinite parallel universes exist beyond our own observable cosmos. The most exciting conjecture of this theory, it seems, is that in these vast and complex “other” universes, you and I exist, living out all manner of different lives.
Why has our culture become obsessed with the idea of limitless versions of our world?
Whether you subscribe to the theory or not, the question must be asked, why has our culture become obsessed with the idea of limitless versions of our world?
Perhaps it’s because you and I already carry a multiverse of unlived lives inside our minds. The imagined reality of what could have been if we had made different choices. Most of us know the ache of regret or longing for a life that might have been.
The fictional rendering of the multiverse in popular culture often involves cosmic do-overs for the characters, who get to cross into these other realities. Our heroes and villains get to see how life could have been had they taken different paths. Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library explicitly explores the themes of regret and the multiverse, as the depressed protagonist, Nora, finds herself in a library that houses all the lives she could have lived if she’d made different choices. She is afforded the opportunity to enter and explore the lives of other Noras. She discovers, in her journey through the alternate choices of her past, that every version of her life has its own unique joys and pain.
That’s something that we don’t see when we stifle regret by traveling to fabulistic alternate realities. You may imagine something better for yourself in another universe, but in truth, you would still experience pain and, yes, regret. These are certainties in life that we cannot escape, no matter what our choices are.
Where can we go to find reprieve from discomfort and regret?
So, where does that leave us? Where can we go to find reprieve from discomfort and regret? The past is behind us, the future is unknowable, and the multiverse is unreachable. Our instinct may be to escape the sting of it all, but the best course of action may be to lean in.
Lean into regret
Regret is tough because it is a steady gaze on our poor choices. It hurts but, like all feelings, regret serves a purpose. It is a great teacher. When we reflect, with remorse, on the awful times we’ve made selfish, insecure, treacherous choices, we remember the reality of our humanity.
The Apostle Paul had no problem in reminding the Ephesian church of their sinful past. Not to condemn them, but to remind them of something greater than their sin – the grace of God.
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:2-6, NIV)
How can we experience the wonder of mercy and grace if we don’t first see the ravages of sin in our lives?
How can we learn and do things differently if we do not consider our failures? How can we heal in our lives if we do not assess the damage and take responsibility? How can we heal in our relationships if we do not face our mistakes and make amends? Above all this, how can we experience the wonder of mercy and grace if we don’t first see the ravages of sin in our lives?
If you don’t see regrettable mistakes in your life, then you are not reflecting on your life with sober humility. The person who does not feel regret is, sadly, living in a fantasy. The danger of this is that you’ll keep on doing the same dumb stuff, never understanding the source of your own suffering.
Lean into Jesus
Here’s the good news: Jesus has already taken the pain of every terrible thing we’ve done or failed to do upon his own body on the cross. Not only our sin and guilt but also our shame.
It is finished. You are forgiven. If you are labouring under a heavy burden of condemnation, it’s time to go back to Jesus. Back to the heart of the Father God who sent his son to redeem us.
Our regrets can become a source of the sweetest gratitude and joy.
Self-reflection and regret can hurt, but they can bring us to this transformational exchange of our mess for his goodness, our sin for his holiness. Our scarred memories can be healed and redeemed by this amazing grace as the Son of God says, “Go and sin no more.”
Like that woman caught in adultery or the woman who washes the feet of Jesus with her tears, our regrets can become a source of the sweetest gratitude and joy.
Lean into today
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians:
“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)
Paul writes of straining forward, pressing on. There is a tension, something that both propels us toward and restrains us from the future – it’s called the present. We cannot retreat from it or outrun it. Whatever lies behind us is done. All that we have are the choices we make today, until our todays run out.
Many of us long for a do-over at those divergent moments in our past. We even may long for a version of life that is better, happier or maybe still has the teeth of our 20s.
We rarely consider our daily choices and rhythms, instead obsessing over missed opportunities of our past.
Interestingly, it’s not our daily habits that we look to when we consider what could have been. We focus on the “sliding doors” moments. We’re dramatic like that. Also, personal habits – despite being an important predictor of future outcomes – are comparatively rather boring.
When we stare at the ceiling at 2am, awake for no apparent reason. We rarely consider our daily choices and rhythms, instead obsessing over missed opportunities of our past. These have more emotional weight than whether or not we flossed or made intentional relational investments today.
Remember and forget
The popularity of the multiverse narrative is fascinating. Perhaps it satiates our human desire to repel the unsatisfactory, uncomfortable realities of today in order to explore the fantasy of lives we have not and cannot experience. This escape numbs our pangs of regret, helping us to bypass both disappointment and accountability.
When we look at the Scriptures, we see that the Apostle Paul instructs believers to remember their sin. Conversely, he also instructs us to forget the past. So what do we do?
When regret serves the purpose of bringing us to the feet of Jesus or teaching us or inspiring change, then we should lean into it and learn from it. When regret keeps us locked in shame or makes us fearful of the future, then we should forget the past as best we can.
Unlike the multiverse travellers in literature and film, the one thing we can never do is escape our choices. Even the Apostle Paul never truly forgets his regrettable past as an enemy and vicious persecutor of Christians. We are the sum of our choices; we carry them with us on this singular, winding path that we walk. Our past choices can instruct us, but they need not master us. Nor should they keep us from making another choice, perhaps a better choice, today.