Contingency, or some other thing

by Maria on November 8, 2021

I’ve been thinking about how so many stories touch on the idea that another life or even world is almost perceivable but impossibly far away, under normal conditions, but the heroine can see different versions of the future or choose different paths, etc. Or the whole ‘sliding doors’ thing, where a critical moment splits a life in two. Those stories are delicious, not just because we get to explore versions of what might have happened, but because they satisfy a deeper intuition that our sister-lives are almost touchable. (I will only ever recommend Jo Walton’s ‘My Real Children’ as the best, most profoundly compassionate and practically wise branched narrative any of us is likely to encounter.)

When my husband Ed was deployed to Afghanistan, I wrote him letter after letter, not quite able to believe that the blue envelope could exist both in a military quarter in Scotland and, soon after, a base in Helmand. (Letters! The original time travel machine, and the best.) Or that he might have walked out the door five months before for what we couldn’t yet know was be the last time. (It wasn’t.) We often spin contingency around tragic or life-altering events, the ‘if only’s’ about humdrum decisions that set in train outcomes we so desperately wish hadn’t happened, and whose precipitating actions seem so trivial, so mundane, there must surely be a way to take them back. Even stuff like taking the stairs and not the lift at the airport, and just missing that flight. You feel like you can almost reach back and grab yourself of just a few minutes ago.

When I was a university student, my father was involved in a serious car accident. At home looking after my younger siblings, I heard his deeply familiar footsteps come down the hall. In the moment the door handle turned, I both knew it must be him and that it couldn’t be. Both seemed equally true, and until the person came into the room, my father was just as much walking into the kitchen as he was lying in an ICU. (The steps were my older brother Henry’s. I just hadn’t realised they then had the same gait and also source of shoes, i.e. my mother…)

Of course, a lifetime of reading Borges and SFF and popular science about quantum physics is inevitably going to create a fractally abundant way of thinking and feeling about what is only ever plain old contingency. Or just provide more metaphors that dissolve on contact with the inability to express how weird it is that time moves inexorably forward when we, surely, can just. not. Or could sidestep it beautifully in defiance of the expected rhythms, if we, too, had Dune’s choreographer Benjamin Millepied (he of Black Swan/Natalie Portman fame) teaching us how to move.

(By the by, I’ve not seen anything about how very, very French the sensibilities of that film are, from its director to its male lead to Charlotte Rampling’s perfectly ‘learning nothing and forgetting nothing’ Bene Gesserit abbess, to its very slightly orthogonal aesthetic relation to imperialism in the Arab world. Also the music, though I may be wrong about that.)

Anyway, I was just wondering if other people have that ‘can almost reach out and touch it’ feeling about branched lives, or other forms of intuitive disbelief about continuity, causality and contingency, or perhaps I’m calling it the wrong name entirely. How one moment leading straight to the next, and one thing inexorably causing another just seems unlikely, at very large and very small scales. I’m not entirely convinced about the middle one, either.

Does this mode of appeal to other possibilities predate late twentieth century literature and physics, or do we just use new models and metaphors to describe something people have always felt? Or was there – oh no! – a complete fracture in how we conceive of this, or perhaps just the mental model of how we make peace with it, and now there’s no going back? Perhaps what I’m calling contingency, which seems also to contain the idea of its own unsteadiness, is just a secular form of disbelief in the primacy of the present. Was it always thus?



Ingrid Robeyns 11.08.21 at 7:10 pm

Thanks for this lovely post, Maria. Here’s one that might fall in this category of branched lives.

My father used to tell us that in WWII, my grandfather commuted to work on a daily basis (I am not entirely sure where they were living, but roughly in the area around the town Tienen in Belgium). One day, his wife/my grandmother urged him not to take the train – she had a feeling something was not right. Somehow he agreed.
Later, they learnt that the train he was supposed to take was bombed.

[no doubt the real story was different or slightly different, but still, this is too good not to pass down the generations].


Theophylact 11.09.21 at 1:45 am

So, so many. Most recently Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual, but not so long ago Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and Christopher Priest’s <>i>The Separation and The Adjacent.


MFB 11.09.21 at 7:34 am

It has ever been thus.

In James Thurber’s short story, “The Luck of Jad Peters”, Jad goes through his life believing that a benevolent authority is watching over him, that something tells him not to go on a cruise where the liner subsequently sinks, or go to the state fair when a tent subsequently collapses, or (in the dark) swig a bottle of cure-all which turns out to have been carbolic acid. Jad, never an attractive figure, becomes increasingly boring and crotchety as he grows over. Eventually, one day he passes a colleague in the main street, turns round to say something to him, and a rock flung by some blasting in the nearby river hits him in the torso and kills him instantly. The colleague remarks “Something must’ve told Jad to turn around”.


Ray Vinmad 11.09.21 at 10:59 am

I was conceived ‘out of wedlock’ as they used to say and while pregnant my teenage mother considered the standard and a few more radical things she might do to manage her predicament. She told me about some of these at various points and I spent my childhood vividly imagining (and often wishing for) the other possibilities. Though you can’t imagine your own nonexistence, I did have a pretty strong sense of my own contingency. (No, it didn’t bother me).

For some reason, in a couple of these alternative lives I imagined being able to play the piano–something I could have done in my actual life. While the alternative parents were never very fleshed-out except insofar as they were upper middle-class and calm, they were (unsurprisingly) the kind of parents I imagined perfectly nurturing my potential. (I had no musical potential.) And naturally I imagined the glamorous life I’d have led if only my mother had only fled the country –one of her alternate plans.

As I get older now everything good and bad starts to seem like it happened the way it was supposed to–which is absurd and a strange reversal of my former attitude that almost anything could happen. Perhaps this is one of those unremarkable side-effects of aging.


Sophie Jane 11.09.21 at 11:50 am

There’s an obvious resonance here for trans people – most obviously for anyone who took a long time to figure it out, as I did, but really anyone who was forced to go through the wrong puberty can have that sense of another life that might have been. And we could extend this to any kind of queer identity and talk about “queer temporalities” in the subjunctive mode, I think. What kind of person would I be if I’d come out sooner, or later, or not at all? The details vary, but I think it’s common to have an awareness of some of these possible selves.

(In my case, I have quite a specific vision of how I could have been if I’d come out as a young woman – shy and awkward, but more able to inhabit the world and take joy in existing – but also an awareness of how different my life would have necessarily been if I’d been subject to the bigotries I remember in straight and queer culture at the time. It’s not a simple matter of regret, as I sometimes hear from younger people.)


Glen Tomkins 11.09.21 at 5:07 pm

The human feeling you describe is presumably why people started to speculate on what eventually became the theoretical conflict of Free Will vs Determinism. Of course, the very process of reducing the competing theories to formal rigidity tended to dry up and exclude the human feeling that got the process started, which actually involves the sense in the lived experience that both theories are categorically true, at the same time, and not at all in exclusionary competition. Science begins with a sense of wonder at the phenomenon, as Aristotle tells us, but kills off the wonder soon enough as we get nearer to understanding.

This sense that things are both inevitable and also contingent thus tends to get buried, so maybe in the best literature you’re not going to get the conflict as anything but subtext. If the conflict was in the forefront, well, that’s a level of formal rigidity that has already destroyed the subjective feeling within a character or the audience. But you look at, say, Hamlet, and one way of appreciating it’s great achievement is that the author manages to portray the hero as genuinely at sea, not at all sure what he is going to do, or should do, five minutes from now, despite being in a highly determined situation. He entertains a very compelling and formally rigid theory of what he must do, kill Claudius, but he just doesn’t feel it in the moment, feel that this is inevitable and the only possible thing he can and should do. The audience gets involved too. We know we’re seeing a Revenge Tragedy, a work of a certain genre with formal rules dictating that Hamlet is going to end up killing at least Claudius, so there’s that pre-formed theoretical structure in place. But within that theory, the author just goes on and on toying with us about whether or not, and why or not, Hamlet is going to end up doing what that theoretical framework has promised us. Maybe the author is just genre-bending. Who knows? At least that sense of alternate possibilities is raised.

It’s harder to relate to the ancient tragedies because of the cultural distance, but you could see something like the Agamemnon as making this conflict of choice vs determinism more upfront. There s exactly one action in the whole damn play, which, at least is only about a tenth as long as Hamlet, so there’s that relief. But that action consists solely of this, that Agamemnon, after some speechifying, steps on the red carpet his wife has strewn on the ground for him to tread on as he returns from the Trojan War, and wow, is it asking a lot of an audience used to car chases and fight scenes to care about that. Everybody involved, the characters and the audience, knows the history, that to leave for Troy, Agamemnon was offered the choice of murdering his daughter or canceling the war, and he chose war and murder. Everybody in the audience knows that his wife, because the hero murdered their daughter, is about to murder him. As a sort of acknowledgment that he owes her some sort of explanation, Agamemnon has a speech in which he blames his action on necessity. He concludes with “Pos liponaus genomai?” “How could I desert the expedition?”, though literally it’s more like, “How could I get off the ship?”. We would perhaps talk about getting off the trolley, but they just had ships in that era as conveyances that carried you along without your will having anything to do with the course the conveyance follows. It’s something that takes you, you have no control. Of course this absolute ruler had no power to get off the ship without giving up his position in society, precisely because that absolute power rested on maintaining the pretence of mastery of any fate that mere human existence could throw at him. So Clytemnestra arranges the one action in the play by setting out this carpet that Agamemnon has to ruin by stepping on it, because it has been dyed with the incredibly expensive Tyrian purple extracted from Murex snails. This stuff is closer to blood red that what we think of as purple, so maybe the color scheme might give a hint that this is about to end badly for Agamemnon. He hesitates to tread, giving as his excuse the huge waste involved, but Clytemnestra goads him into it as the only choice a god-king could possibly make without losing his social standing. “Estin thalassa! Tis de nin katasbessei?” “The ocean is out there. Who could exhaust it?” The author doesn’t have her state it so baldly as this paraphrase, because he can’t have the character put the theory out there openly without ruining the drama, but she is basically saying, “There’s more dye where that came from. You’re not the sort of person who has to count the cost, who has to make choices when given the freedom of alternate futures. There is so much blood in the world, your daughter’s and all those people killed in your precious war, that you shouldn’t count the cost.” We know the outcome beforehand, that Clytemnestra is about to murder our hero. The author chooses to arrange that fact as the result of Agamemnon’s refusal to choose human outcomes when set against the choice of confirming his social position. He could have been a mensch, but that would have involved getting off the trolley.

You have to dig, but I think that you can reasonably see this sense of both inevitability and possibility coexisting, present just about everywhere in what writing has been handed down to us. It’s just that it can’t be upfront, because that tends to spoil it by removing the tension felt in the lived experience that is being represented.


steven t johnson 11.09.21 at 9:13 pm

The OP writes “…intuitive disbelief about continuity, causality and contingency…How one moment leading straight to the next, and one thing inexorably causing another just seems unlikely,,,a secular form of disbelief in the primacy of the present. Was it always thus?”

Myths and fairy tales and the loosely named romances (as in Alexander Romance or Greek novels) don’t seem to me to paint a world haunted by fatalism. And I’m not so sure that “science” today isn’t widely rejected—save for the handy gadgets that somehow go along—precisely because it doesn’t leave the individual as captain of their fate.

Calvinist double predestination is out of fashion, but even it projects a world of will. Real discontinuity in nature would be a nightmare. Dreamworlds have the disconcerting problem of not being consciously willed, after all. God provides a livable world as an act of His will in service to US, the paragons whose creation proves His goodness. To put it another way, the first commandment for the believer is that God believes in them. So even the Calvinists see contingency, even if not the contingency of prayer working miracles. Calvinists though do not see contingency in the exercise of the will in choosing the Go(o)d. The ability to change your feelings strikes me as the kind of free will truly worth having, but I’m no more sure than the unfashionable Calvinists that free will is a thing at all.

Disbelief in the primacy of the present I think expresses the notion that people can ignore the past and remake themselves by an act of will. The ladder of talents is there to climb and the meritorious rise. The relationship to market society seems clear enough but not being able to read living minds, much less dead ones, much less validly generalizing without difficult statistics, I can’t say whether it has only been thus.

I do think that saying things that are real and matter have causes is too much like saying, no, you can’t really reinvent yourself. Even the random events whose causes are impossible to determine (no one knows which butterfly in Brazil caused the hurricane nor can they, ever!) are the opposite of fate, yet they are not willed either.

Other thoughts…The feeling the wonder goes away when you understand makes me think of the feeling the love goes away when you get married. But then I’ve never felt either way, so maybe I just don’t understand. I’m pretty sure that Agamemnon is not the hero in the same way as Hamlet is the hero. Hamlet can lecture professional actors on their craft; mourn more deeply for the woman he called the c-word than her brother; outwit a murder plot and get the underlings killed by a simple trick; berate his mother and have her apologize to him; put philosophy in its proper place and so on and so forth. Agamemnon on the other hand is bound by an oath to the Gods to rescue the semidivine Helen, his brother’s wife. I’m pretty sure the tragedy is supposed to come from the conflict of two rights, which can only be reconciled by divine fiat.


jackjohnson 11.10.21 at 12:34 am

The classic sci-fi writer Fritz Leiber worked out perhaps the best multi-timeline metaphysical system in his sequence of Change War stories, \eg the 1958 Hugo winner `The Big Time’. I’ve come to the conclusion that my dreams are frequently communications from alternate versions of myself in adjacent timelines.


Alan White 11.10.21 at 12:45 am

Maria, great OP, but I’m sending this not to be published but just to see if I can post something to you at all. I had prepared a longer post about your great point, but I constantly receive an error message. This is just to see if I can post anything to you!


Alan White 11.10.21 at 1:11 am

Well that short attempt seemed to work but I still can’t post anything longer. So I’ll stop. Anyway, great post, and no need to post this of course.


Chris Marcil 11.10.21 at 3:57 am

Your story about the footsteps in the hall could also be the start of a story about something uncanny; and maybe the ghosts in those kinds of stories, whatever else they’re doing, are also representatives of the feeling that things not only could be other than what they are — they already are.

Stories about identical twins, or babies separated at birth, seem like another old-fashioned storytelling device to get at that feeling. But I agree, alternate realities are a specialty of us moderns. We had to invent trains first, before our characters could miss them in fate-altering ways.


Maria 11.10.21 at 7:52 am

Alan, I’m sorry! Not sure what went wrong. I’ve had a look through the backend and I’m afraid your longer comment has been eaten. If you did manage to copy yours and can email it to me (first name dot last name at gmail dot com) I’ll post it.


Jameson 11.10.21 at 11:14 am

I’ve just been reading a Ted Chiang short story about this, specifically the ability to communicate with the other timeline where X or Y didn’t happen, and the ways that makes people a bit crazy sometimes. It does suggest there’s something in the zeitgeist, doesn’t it?


George Hogenson 11.10.21 at 3:56 pm

Much of this echos C. G. Jung on synchronicity and other phenomena. Once the province of Jungians alone it is now increasingly commented on and used by more traditional psychoanalysts as well. For the best work on synchronicity and quantum mechanics, I recommend Harald Atmanspacher on dual-aspect monism. You can find his papers on Also the collection of essays in The Pauli-Jung Conjecture, Imprint Academia 2014 edited by Atmanspacher and Fuchs. Also, Joseph Cambray, Synchronicity: Nature and Psyche in an Interconnected World, Texas A&M Press, 2009. For the intellectual background to the Pauli-Jung collaboration, the best source is Suzanne Gieser, The Innermost Kernel: Depth Psychology and Quantum Physics, Wolfgang Pauli’s Dialogue with C. G. Jung, Springer, 2004.


John Quiggin 11.10.21 at 9:44 pm

I can remember thinking along these line (with embarrassing romantic wishful thinking) in my teens

Schrodinger and Heisenberg had a lot to do with this, I think. Before that, both scientific determinism and religious/folk beliefs about fate, kismet, God etc all pointed us away from thinking that there were other possible histories.


Matt 11.11.21 at 12:22 am

Schrodinger and Heisenberg had a lot to do with this, I think. Before that, both scientific determinism and religious/folk beliefs about fate, kismet, God etc all pointed us away from thinking that there were other possible histories.

While I’m far from sure, I don’t think this is right. The popularity of “the want of a nail” type proverbs seems to me to suggest that people well before the advent of quantum mechanics had ideas about contingency and that things could have gone very differently. (It’s hard for me to know exactly how these things were understood. Perhaps some people took them to show that the future is strictly determined by trivial seeming things, but the implication seems to me to suggest that people thought things could have been very different in a strong enough way. See some basic discussion here:


oldster 11.11.21 at 5:38 am

The opening phrase of Euripides Medea is, “if only!” That’s all it takes for us to think about alternative timelines: if only the Argo had never sailed, and Jason never come to Colchis. Then he and Medea would not be on the verge of murder now.
No need for quantum whatsits, just the feeling that certain salient past events could have gone otherwise. And that we can plot meaningful alternative courses from those pivot-points forward to different present states.
I have often wondered about contingency because it complicates our longing for the afterlife. I don’t think that there is any afterlife, but I think that a desire for one is fairly common. And connected to our desire to overcome the contingencies that make this life hard. In heaven, we’ll be reunited. In heaven, your legs will work. In heaven, we’ll have our little Mary once again, who died so young, who brought us so much joy and so much sorrow.
But how old will she be in heaven? And how much will be restored to her? Will the girl who died at three get to grow up? Get to read books? Swim in the sea? Fall in love? Marry? Will she get to have, in heaven, the full life of which she was deprived here? Which one? How many of the different lives she could have led?
Help yourself to heaven as a wish-fulfillment machine, and it becomes clear that we don’t even know what to wish for, which of the many unrealized possibilities we want to be true. All of them, somehow, all of the good ones, none of the bad ones. We’re baffled even at the thought of unlimited wish fulfillment.
The actual course of events at least focuses our minds: I simply want to get through the day, get home, make dinner, see the survivors. That’s enough for today.


John Quiggin 11.11.21 at 10:16 am

I think there’s a fair gap between “If only the Argo hadn’t sailed” or “for the want of a nail” and imagining a whole parallel universe contingent on the ship or nail.

I agree with oldster on this point: contingency and the afterlife are competitors for wish-fulfilment or just an imagined alternative to our current life.


Peter T 11.11.21 at 10:31 am

Choice is ordinary condition of out existence. We face various possibilities, we agonise, consider or just jump as our moods allow, and then we are, in some new set of circumstances. Determinism may be valid philosophically, but it’s not the lived experience. Our current life is one of alternatives, paths only one of which we can tread. So other realities are to present every day.


Jim Buck 11.11.21 at 11:05 am

Quran 18:65–82 (Surah Kahf) recounts the tale of Moses and his teacher (taken by many scholars to be Khidr a.k.a the Wandering Jew). The teacher in the story displays a foreknowledge of the outcome of contingent circumstances. His actions offend and appal his companion Moses’s strict morality:
It is wrong to return evil for good, but the teacher deliberately holes the boat of a ferryman who had taken the companions across a river for no fee.
It is wrong to return good for evil, but the teacher rebuilds a wall in a village where they had been met with hostility and violence.
It is wrong to kill, but the teacher kills the son of a kind and hospitable couple.
Moses can take no more of this carry on. He demands an explanation.
The teacher explains that he foresaw a situation where the boat would be commandeered by a conquerer and the ferryman pressed into the army and perhaps be killed.
The wall that was rebuilt was done so to conceal a treasure hidden underneath it. At some point in the future the wall would collapse again and the treasure be found by deserving orphans.

The son who the teacher killed would have grown up to commit crimes that brought ruin and disgrace upon his parents.

The claim seems to me to be that if your headlights are on you may use the wheel to swerve onto a better road. it is not necessarily the pretty route though.


oldster 11.11.21 at 1:26 pm

“I think there’s a fair gap between “If only the Argo hadn’t sailed” or “for the want of a nail” and imagining a whole parallel universe contingent on the ship or nail.”
That sounds right.
But the gap is largely a quantitative one, i.e. how detailed is the subsequent world-building.
“For want of a nail” — an excellent example of pre-modern counterfactual thinking — the shoe, horse, and eventually the kingdom are all lost. So, in the alternative timeline, none of those things are lost.
So much we know, but the rest of the timeline is left indeterminate and under-described. But it could be elaborated with more patience and paper?


MisterMr 11.11.21 at 2:58 pm

It seems to me that the human brain naturally thinks in terms of counterfactuals: for example a baboon who wants to eat a fruit sees a tree that looks like other trees that bear fruits, but also imagines that the tree could hide a snake.
Thus the baboon is thorn between going towards the tree or running from it.

The baboon acts based on two couterfacuals that he or she fantasizes, and the emotions of hope and fear that those counterfactuals create; thus fantasy, counterfactuals and alternative worlds are at the very base of our way of thinking.

However, alternative worlds inside our mind are something, the supposed existence of alternative worlds outside our mind is something very different.


Alan White 11.11.21 at 3:35 pm

Asymmetrical Luck

In a very forceful sense of what’s contingent, I should not be writing this sentence. I’m writing this one as well only because my mother finished the interior of a casket in a way that displeased someone, the wife of the factory’s owner. Had this one person said, “Well, I wouldn’t have tacked that fabric that way, but it’s ok,” or the like, I would not be writing this sentence either. But she didn’t say that to my mother. She said something like “You need to redo that lining–it’s not right.” To my now long-lost mother, whose intricately crocheted doilies sit on my furniture as I write these sentences, that was needless comeuppance. She defended her work, and was sent home for the day.

And that is why I’m writing this sentence. One small moment that could have happened–the boss’s wife might have caved and acknowledged my Mom was doing a good enough job–did not. And that’s why I’m writing this sentence.

And this one as well: luck figures more prominently in lives of most people as opposed to those relative few of socio-economic privilege. Mom’s standing up for herself–when she by 60s Southern sensibilities of her place should have just said “Yes Ma’am”–changed everything in her family’s life. That includes me of course. Which is why I’m writing this sentence.

My Mom might not have been so proud as to defend her work. Earlier bad luck that made her proud and responsible–becoming a mother to siblings at 16 because her own mother sickened and died of TB during the Depression–need not have happened. But it did, and so she knew when her sewing stitches were tight, and the cornbread was done. She was a product of luck too, bad luck that created her no-nonsense confidence of a proper job.

So luck of the past collided with luck of an off-hand remark, and social structures did their work, and Mom was sent home. And so I write this sentence.

I guess I need to fill in other details, luck-infused as they are too. My Dad worked at that casket factory too–part of the needed dual-income of 60s working poor to make ends meet in southern middle Tennessee. (I still have his 50-dollar-a-week pay stubs for those years.) His wife was not-quite-fired, but still sent home. And his ego was at stake–he helped secure my Mom’s employment because he knew the owners and there was the southern question of male dignity and all. So he quit (I sense there were Lysistrata overtones but how could I know that then?). And our lives changed.

No jobs in Loretto Tennessee in late 1963. But as luck would have it, some relatives had settled in California. Time to move and see what’s possible. Maybe some good luck.

So at 10 I left my beloved dog Frisky, my friends, my (as I could not comprehend then) underfunded elementary school, and eventually my southern accent, behind.

And that is why I’m writing this sentence. My parents paired with an uncle to start a dry cleaners in Vallejo, California, where I was then immersed in an integrated public school system (I had never met anyone who was non-Caucasian until then) with well-funded programs that eventually required me to take a second language (Spanish for me, forsaking French), forced me to take PE (which I resented all the while–and now bless them for it), and held me to high academic standards. I graduated 3rd out of a class of 500 from Vallejo High.

Tortured sequences of events forward–luck flying high and low, good and bad throughout–I landed in the University of Tennessee–Knoxville MA/PhD program in 1976. There was good and bad luck there–but all of it led eventually in 1981 to just one interview out of 70+ applications that resulted in my being hired for a 1/2 time tenure -track position in Wisconsin, and, as I found out much later, against an internal candidate. If that isn’t luck–not just to get that one interview, but to get the job against stacked odds–then I don’t know what is.

Now I am near [and 2021 now am in] retirement, a full professor, and grateful for what I have.

Do I deserve my professional life as I’ve had it? Maybe in some slight sense. I worked hard–but lots of people work, and many harder than I have. What I had was some luck, and enough of it, just enough, turned to make my life good rather than just middling or bad.

What if my Mom’s casket-factory-owner’s wife had not said what she said that day? Might I have moved through rural Tennessee schools and had anything like the life I’ve had? Oh c’mon. I highly doubt it. The odds are that I would have ended up much differently, and probably poorer in many different ways.

Luck I take it is a much larger factor for someone with a socio-economic background like mine–despite the fact I’m Caucasian and male to some factor of thus added benefit. But much could have gone other ways having everything to do with who I was as a 60s common son of the rural South, without any safety net of economic privilege, and so minor adjustments of relevant counterfactuals might easily have produced major differences in my life against how it actually and luckily played out.

If my Mom had not rebutted just one remark that day in 1963, would I have been able to write this question or the previous sentence or the following last claim? I strongly doubt it.


Trader Joe 11.11.21 at 4:26 pm

@23 Alan White

Thank you for sharing your story.
Though another way to look at it is that had that not one remark occurred and had your mother not reacted as she did – you may well have still ended up substantially where you did, it just would have required a different catalyst or a different stroke of luck to see you home.

The story I’ll share is that I met the woman who I married whilst at University. Some years later I/we discovered that she had applied to 3 of the same 4 schools I had applied to. Accordingly, there are multiple paths under which perhaps we could both have chosen differently and still met at a different school resulting in maybe one “meant to be” endpoint, but infinite different careers, different cities, different friends and the consequent impacts on the durability of our marriage (31 years and counting) and our children (2 and not counting).

Sometimes its not just one bit of divergence, but several in succession each with their own forces that creates the actual story arc we call our lives.


Tom Bach 11.11.21 at 5:03 pm

Didn’t Cyrano de Bergerac, or however it’s spelt, use the idea of infinite worlds and contingent choice to convince some woman or another to commit adultery with him?


Dave W. 11.11.21 at 8:13 pm

Jamison: I assume that was “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” in Chiang’s 2019 collection Exhalation. It was a finalist for Best Novella in the 2020 Hugo and Nebula Awards. It’s really good.


Alan White 11.12.21 at 5:27 am

Thank you Trader Joe.

We would not have left Tennessee without that incident. And without that, I could not have experienced transforming social and economic experiences in California. Whatever capacities I had in Tennessee, the milieu was such that I would have been a totally different person with many fewer opportunities. I have little doubt about that, which of course inspired this writing.

I traced the life of a childhood best friend in Tennessee who was I think as well endowed as I at the age of 10, and his life turned out very middling economically and educationally, which in part was the function of where he remained. It truly takes a village, and the village where one grows up is a significant part of who we become. I fell into a good village because of my mother making just one remark against a rebuke with all its resultant consequences, and that made all the difference.


Jim Buck 11.12.21 at 5:28 pm

Maybe a better future is a possibility that comes into being by generating its own better past?


harry b 11.13.21 at 2:15 am

I have a similar story as Ray Vinmad: if abortion had been legal, I would have been aborted. Additionally my mother’s parents tried to convince her to let them raise me till she was through college.

There’s another I suppose. I received a letter in my mid-twenties from someone telling me she was getting married. I now know that the letter was a coded request for me to interfere and prevent the marriage. Which I might have done if I’d understood. But I didn’t. 34 years later I know the marriage has been successful.

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