My oldest son, Jonah, was the first to introduce me to the contemporary idea of the “multiverse.” While the concept, and even the term, have been around for centuries (Wikipedia tells me William James used it in 1895), the notion has gained particular traction in today’s media. The TV show “Rick and Morty,” which Jonah loves, is built on the idea of “infinite timelines, infinite possibilities” in infinite universes that the scientist Rick has figured out how to travel between. There are the recent Spiderman movies, which feature a multiverse containing infinite varieties of Spider-people (and even a SpiderPig). Even if you’re not familiar with these more recent vintages, much science fiction writing about time machines is built on the notion of multiple possible timelines/storylines and the ability to alter history (see Star Trek, for example).
I speculate that one reason the concept seems so prevalent today has to do with the internet, which has opened up so many possible storylines. Jonah is 20 years old, meaning he has never really known a world without Google or YouTube or even social media. Don’t like the story? Then just create a new one and post it. A second reason might also be the calamitous storylines we seem to be on–climate change in particular–and the implicit promise that either we might somehow change them through accessing the multiverse or that, even if our world is headed in the wrong direction, there are other versions of us out there who are ok.
This last observation points up a kind of fulcrum on which the multiverse hinges: It can offer us an optimistic vision (“We can change the story!”) or a rather nihilistic coping mechanism (“We’re done for, but it’s okay because humanity in a parallel universe is living harmoniously on solar energy and fusion and eating plant-based food.”). Sitting on that see-saw can be exhausting, as one moves from optimism one moment to pessimism the next. Perhaps that’s where mindfulness practice comes in: to allow us to sit calmly at the fulcrum, neither dreaming about a hopeful future nor dreading a hopeless one, but just being present in the present with what’s here and real right now in our experience.
One of the striking things about Parashat Chayei Sarah is that a large chunk of it is devoted to telling and then retelling the same story, that of Abraham’s servant to find a wife for Isaac. (I wrote about this in my essay on Chayei Sarah in Eternal Questions.) The differences in the accounts of the omniscient narrator and the servant himself are not major; they don’t take place, as it were, on separate timelines. The differences are so imperceptible that the medieval commentators don’t make much of the story, even though it takes up a good deal of real estate in the Torah portion. But I think one of the lessons the Torah is teaching in repeating the story is that we, ourselves, are capable of telling different versions of the same story. We are capable of imagination. While, yes, we aim to see clearly the truth of what is happening, we simultaneously acknowledge that the truth can be experienced and told in multiple ways. Perhaps, that is to say, we already live in the multiverse.
For me, as for many, this Shabbat is going to begin and end an hour earlier than it did last week because we turned back the clocks. I have always found the effect of this clock change on my Shabbat experience to be striking. Through an act of collective consciousness, we have agreed that the sun now sets at 4:35 this week instead of 5:43 last week where I live in Skokie, and that changes the storyline of my day and even my week. Though the sun still rises and sets in more or less the same parts of the sky as it did a week ago, my relationship with the colors and rhythms of the natural world, not to mention with work and family schedules, is changed considerably. It’s jarring and a bit mysterious, a little thrilling and a little scary (and a little crazy-making: I’ve been waking up before 5 am all week).
Shabbat itself is, of course, an act of imagination: While the Rabbis maintain that Shabbat exists every seven days whether we observe it or not, our experience is that we have to collectively choose to make it for ourselves–or, perhaps, we have to allow ourselves to be chosen by Shabbat. (Yes, this calls to mind Ahad Ha-Am’s famous line: “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”) We might think of Shabbat as a gift from the multiverse (which might itself be another name for the Infinite), telling us that there is a different way to live, a different way to be, than the way we experience the world the other six days of the week–and it doesn’t involve escaping to somewhere else or hoping for a superhero to save us, but is, instead, available to us right here, right now. With all the suffering we and so many others are enduring today, that is a gift I want to give myself, you, and everyone.