Yesterday I was reading this account of this guy who tried to kill himself. It was on Reddit—I've lost the reference. My sister's putting together a class about suicide prevention for her work and I thought I'd help her find some material, and this Redditor's story came up after a few searches. He said something that really caught me off guard.
He said that as he held a blade to his wrist he knew that he wanted to kill himself, but he wasn't so sure that he wanted to kill all of his future selves. What if, by killing himself today, he also kills a future self who could have made a significant impact on the world? It's Leibniz's possible world theory.
Follow me on this one. Leibniz introduced the philosophical idea of possible worlds by saying that God knows all of the infinitely forward-branching possibilities of every decision ever made by anyone who's ever lived, how one choice branches out into another and another and another. How each choice stems off into a world unto itself.
There's the world where I choose to have tacos and the world where I've chosen cheeseburgers. In the taco-world, everything's fine because I walked to the taco truck down the street. In burger-world, however, maybe my car gets hit on the way to Five Guys. In burger-world I could be paralyzed from the waist down.
Leibniz said that God, too, makes choices. So if God is making choices that have universally, cosmically large implications then we can trust that the world we're living in is the best of all possible worlds—the world of God's choosing. The criticism of that argument is obvious: This world sucks. I mean, the Holocaust happened, right?
But there's something to the self in abstract, the many possible future selves, the future self who has to live with the decisions of the present self, that really intrigues me. I quote Seth Godin a lot. I read his blog every single day. He said in today's post:
The key step in creating a better future is insisting that it not be based on the assumptions, grievances and dead ends of the past.
The future won't be perfect. We won't be perfect. But we can be kind. We can listen. We can give opportunity the benefit of the doubt.
The future won't always work. We won't always succeed. But we can be alert and seek out the possible instead of the predicted.
So here's a thought. What if, instead of dreaming up the most perfect predictions of our futures—running through expected moments in our heads, picturing the perfect day, arranging dream journals and pin-boards in hopes of the happiest imaginable future—what if we opened ourselves to all that is possible?
What if we, by opening ourselves to choice and considering that future self, let this be the world of God's choosing (so to speak)?
I mean, instead of determining your path—like the Redditor who determined that he would kill himself—instead of planning it all out like that, why not consider the future self? Consider the self in abstract, fielding choices which create possible worlds to be experienced by the future self.
In his post, "Detailed dreams blind you to new means," Derek Sivers says:
We all have vivid imaginations. We get a goal in our mind, and picture the path so clearly. Then it’s hard to stop focusing on that vivid image, to see what else could work.
New technologies make old things easier, and new things possible. That’s why you need to re-evaluate your old dreams to see if new means have come along…
You need to distinguish between what is your real goal, and what are the unnecessary details. Don’t let the details distract you from your goal.
Opening yourself up to all that is possible is as simple as asking, "What else could work?" I know the story I told about the suicidal Reddit user was dark, but there's something really wonderful about that man's story. In effect, he asked himself, What else could work? "Instead of ending it all right here, what else could work?"
So your best laid plans have gone awry? What else could work?
So the man of your dreams turned out to be a hack and left you days before the wedding. What else could work?
So the audition went well but then you never got a callback. What else could work?
So you can't quite afford the place with the en suite master bathroom, with the his-and-her sinks? What else could work?
We take a lot of comfort in the predicted. The planned. The imagined. The anticipated. We play these scenarios out in our heads. How's he going to propose? What will I wear on the day? What kind of countertops will we choose for our first kitchen? What will our first child wear to his or her first Easter church service?
We even play out conflict and drama in our heads. We put words in people's mouths, often making ourselves the hero of our dramatic foretelling or trying anticipate his or her objections and rebuttals. But we don't often ask ourselves, If I can't convince them that I'm right, what else could work?
The predicted may be comfortable in our minds but it's rarely actual in our world. In fact, the predicted is often unrealistic. And when our predictions don't come true exactly as we mapped them out in that Pinterest folder, we can become shattered, indignant, mad at God, thinking the universe owed it to us to give us the life we wanted. To actualize our life-plan.
But opening ourselves to what's possible—to all that is possible—there's some joy to be had in that. You're still dreaming, you're still hoping, but instead of thinking that there's one and only one path that will bring you satisfaction, you're now asking, "What else could work?"
Could I be happy in this house over that? Does my husband have to have a full head of hair? Could I be ok with mid-century modern over rustic, Chip-and-Joanna looking decor? If I never marry, what else could work? If I don't get that promotion, what else could work?
We live in a world of opportunity and yet we're told to bind ourselves to one single dream from about 18 years old. We're told we should have something we want to do for the rest of our adult lives. We're told we should have a plan in place, and yet we're just kids. We're never told to open ourselves to all that is possible.
I remember sitting in a guidance counselor's office and telling her that I didn't know if I wanted to go to college and I couldn't think of a single thing I really want to do with the rest of my life. I remember the look on her face. All of her other students came in with their one word responses: Teacher, doctor, lawyer, dentist, journalist, sculptor, foreman, engineer.
Ten years later, at 28, I still don't know what I want to be "when I grow up." I want to be present. I want to be aware. I want to be kind. I want to make enough money to travel but not enough to feel trapped by my job. I want to talk. I want to listen. I want to write. I don't know. I want to be open to all that is possible.
I wish someone had just told me back then to simply greet the possibilities with gratitude. Instead, feeling I had to predict my future from 18, I made a plan and fell into deep, deep despair when my plan fell apart. Then I made another and had bad luck with it.
And you'd think I'd have learned my lesson but instead I kept making plans and letting myself be crushed when they didn't pan out exactly like it played in my head.
Leave all options on the table for that future you. Open yourself to a range of possibilities, accept the grand chaos of the universe—that none of us can truly predict the future—and greet each new opportunity with gratitude and kindness.
Step into the swing. If it's not your pitch, settle back in and ready your stance for another. One day, you'll knock something out of the park and as you're running the bases you'll be thankful that you got a few practice swings at balls that just weren't yours to hit.
Your dream could be an open door or a shattered window. If your dream is shattered, you're in as much a position to step forward and through as if it were an open door. You're just stepping forward in a different way, and you might get a few cuts on your hands in the process.