on paths

I’m going to begin by addressing a personal ineptitude: direction.  Examples are helpful.  I’ve lived in Salt Lake City for three years, and until about six months ago I didn’t understand why the streets running north-south were labeled east and west.  I blame my third-grade teacher for insufficient, differentiated instruction when we were supposed to learn longitude and latitude. Ha!  I digress.

It’s funny because my “path,” so to speak, hasn’t been linear or straightforward.  I teach college because, well, I like teaching.  And teaching writing is rewarding because most of my students don’t show up ready to write at the college level.  Most of the time, I feel like they are by the end of the semester.  At least by May I don’t get emails anymore from students that read:  “Whats the homework.”  I remind them that salutations, punctuation, and proper tone are important, especially when they’re trying to get a job.

But so often I question my work.  Is it worthy?  Why don’t I just finish a PhD?  Shouldn’t I have, like, a real career by now?  Shouldn’t I be making more money at this point in my life?  All of that fun stuff.  Ultimately, I’m pretty okay with letting go of all of these unhelpful questions.  And here’s why.

Based on my lack of spatial awareness, it probably does not come as a surprise that my gifts are not math- or science-related either.  Strangely, however, when I was writing my thesis in graduate school I found myself neck high in physics.  I was researching the works of both Spanish-writer Jorge Volpi and Argentinian-writer Jorge Luis Borges.  Their writing, though over fifty years apart, engage in large part the early modernist era of both literature and science.  Both authors were intrigued by the complexities of the World Wars, and both touched on, either directly or inadvertently, the theories of physicists at the time.  Remember, while Hitler was murdering Jews in Europe, German and American physicists were busy building the atomic bomb.  To say that this era sparked metaphysical and psychological upheaval around the world would be a vast understatement.  For most, disillusionment ruled the post-war world.  In literature, form and function took on new meanings.

In one of Borges’s most famous short stories, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the narrator tells a story of a what every step, every choice, every direction means, and the infinite possibilities open to each person, at each moment, at once.  Bear with me here.

At the end of the story he says, “The explanation is obvious. The Garden of Forking Paths is a picture, incomplete yet not false, of the universe […]. Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries – embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.”  As Borges identifies here, authors and scientists began exploring other narratives.  The current one was too painful, too disheartening, too evil.  And much of this exploration took place within the human heart.

I needed to learn some basic quantum physics to write my thesis, which was surely painful for my physics advisor, but I grew to love it.  The wonderful thing about advanced science or math is that it takes on a very literary quality.  Numbers become characters, equations are narratives, and creativity and imagination hold great value.

This is important because I think it tells us a lot about the universe and ourselves.  Regardless of your beliefs, there’s something, to me, very comforting about the idea that the same atom can be two places at once.  Einstein was right!  The implications of this concept are tremendous.   What if in the moment that I walked into my thesis defense I simply tore up my paper and walked away?  In some parallel universe, according to Einstein and Borges, I did!

This does not fill me with a sense of despondency; rather, our future, and our choices are infinitely, limitlessly possible.  I feel great comfort when I think about every version of me taking every forking path, at once.  This makes having a sense of direction vastly over-rated, right?!



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