How do we make meaningful choices?
This book is about infinite possible futures.
It’s similar to Borges ‘Library of Babel’, but has the protagonist (Nora) explore all the infinite versions of the life she could have lived. She starts from a place of despair- a suicide attempt- and finds herself in a space in-between life and death called the ‘Midnight Library’
From there, she has the option to pick any ‘life’ she could think of. What if she had made different choices? What if she had asked out that person, or accepted a job offer, or moved location, or any number of infinite choices?
And from all these infinite choices, which is the ‘right’ choice exactly? What is the ‘best life’.
The Midnight Library is an exploration of contentment, regret, loss and love.
This is a timely book because I’ve been thinking about all the possible futures that could have been. What would have happened if I had chosen my medical training elsewhere, what would have happened if I hadn’t chosen to break off a relationship, what would have happened if I hadn’t had a bereavement. What if I had chosen to take a year off. What if I had said yes to a meaningless audit and scored an extra point on my application that led to being in a different location. What if I had said yes or no to countless opportunities. The list goes on ad infinitum.
How do we know that the choices we make are the ‘right’ choices? In an alternate universe where you chose the opposite, would life be ‘better’? Would it be worse? How do we make meaningful choices?
Two roads diverged in a wood… What if there are more than two roads… what of if there is no end to the choices you could make. What would Robert Frost do?
The Choice is not the issue
Worrying about cause and effect in the grand scheme is a recipe for suffering. You can choose choices, but not outcomes.
Whatever choice you make. It’s gone.
Regret is a thought. All the possible futures are simply thoughts arising in the mind that we confuse for reality. It is impossible to quantify whether the series of choices that you made differently could have ‘ended’ in a better outcomes, because ultimately each path she took had its own meaning, purpose and sense of both pleasure and pain.
Pain and pleasure exist. Regardless of whether Nora became a world famous Swimmer or a suicidal drug addict. People died. Friendships ended. Conversely, each life had its own joys. Each ‘life’ came with ‘good’ and bad’.
In one version, after exploring fame, wealth, intellectual pursuits etc, she becomes a mother, living in Cambridge, happily married, everything seemingly content. She can choose to stay in that life if she ‘truly wants it’. Yet even that slips beyond her and she returns to the Midnight library, because it is not real.
In the end, all possible futures don’t exist, because they are fictions. When one holds onto them too tightly, they cause suffering, because they implicitly say ‘that this life is not good enough’.
In reality, this moment is perfect. The universe is perfect. It’s only in the mind that imperfection arises.
The prison wasn’t the place, but the perspective.
Change the way you see
And so Nora returns to her life. The ‘root’ life where she took the overdose. Where all the choices she made, were made as they were. But she comes back seeing differently. Because life ‘just is’. It is the way we see it that imbues it with meaning.
She realises that the choices she made are neither ‘good nor bad’, but as Shakespeare said ‘only thinking makes it so’. It’s the way you look at life. She saw that in this timeline, her brother was still alive, she was giving piano lessons to a kid (who in another timeline got involved in a bad crowd and went to prison), and that her best friend in New Zealand didn’t die in a car crash. There was both pleasure and pain in this life, but she could ultimately choose what to look at.
The issue was she was searching for meaning outside of herself. In a universe devoid of ultimate meaning, it is YOU, who chooses what is meaningful.
The arrow of time, entropy marches continually forward. The choices we make are neither good nor bad. When comparing choices you should look inwards, and create reasons generated internally.
Every path is the right path.
The future will arrive. A never-ending series of infinite crossroads diverging into infinite roads, ending in the same destination. The beauty is realising : every choice is the right choice. Life is a playground.
I’ll end with this passage in the book
“ It is easy to mourn the lives we aren’t living. Easy to wish we’d developed other talents, said yes to different offers. Easy to wish we’d worked harder, loved better, handled our finances more astutely, been more popular, stayed in the band, gone to Australia, said yes to the coffee or done more bloody yoga. It takes no effort to miss the friends we didn’t make and the work we didn’t do and the people we didn’t marry and the children we didn’t have. It is not difficult to see yourself through the lens of other people, and to wish you were all the different kaleidoscopic versions of you they wanted you to be. It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out. But it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy. We can’t tell if any of those other versions would have been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on. Of course, we can’t visit every place or meet every person or do every job, yet most of what we’d feel in any life is still available. We don’t have to play every game to know what winning feels like. We don’t have to hear every piece of music in the world to understand music. We don’t have to have tried every variety of grape from every vineyard to know the pleasure of wine. Love and laughter and fear and pain are universal currencies. We just have to close our eyes and savour the taste of the drink in front of us and listen to the song as it plays. We are as completely and utterly alive as we are in any other life and have access to the same emotional spectrum. We only need to be one person. We only need to feel one existence. We don’t have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite. While we are alive we always contain a future of multifarious possibility. So let’s be kind to the people in our own existence.”
Mr Nobody is another one of my favourite films that explores this topic. Here is an essay by ‘Like Stories of Old’ :