The neat part about a liberal arts education is that you're forced to take a little bit of everything. The goal, they say, is to spit you out a more well-rounded individual. This meant I got to take weird cool classes like Cultural Geography and the History of Propaganda. I got to write term papers on truly bizarre topics like the theological symbolism of "Thelma and Louise." I wouldn't trade my liberal arts education for the world (though if given another shot, I might try actually ATTENDING class on a regular basis.)
But there was ONE class that was especially rough for me to roll out of bed for every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a trimester: Intro to Philosophy.
Philosophy was one topic I'd never really explored prior to college. I'd like to think of myself as one of those creative, bookworm-y types who'd fit right in with the goateed coffeeshop crowd. Truth be told, I'm more of a shallow, short-sighted realist. To me, life's interesting enough without having to stop and ask questions like, "Am I here?" "Why am I here?" "What is here?" "Why is here not there?" At 8 a.m., my
deepest thoughts are more like, "Am I awake?" and more importantly, "Why am I awake?"
In my opinion, there are only three sorts of people who should concern themselves with philosophy:
(1) Folks who spend their entire lives in homes that smell of fine mahogany whilst discussing the contents of their vast libraries, and most likely doing so with German accents.
(2) Folks who spend their entire lives in silence just a-thinkin' atop Tibetan mountaintops.
(3) Folks who spend their entire lives in Bob Marley t-shirts who liberally insert words like "whoa" and "dude" into conversations just loud enough to be heard over the infinitely long Grateful Dead songs playing in the background.
As annoyed as I was with the class, I was also truly amazed that we could spend an entire hour debating whether or not a chair was real. Vague abstract questions only yield vague abstract answers, so most of our amateur philosophical discussions would end with a profound, "Hmm, that's sure something to think about, alright."
Still, no other class made me feel more "collegiate." I MUST be smart, because only smart people waste their time pondering the nature of being, right? I just couldn't ever imagine a scenario, though, where a job interviewer would ever look me square in the eye and go, "Your resume looks solid. You're a perfect fit for our company... IF you can tell me whether or not this chair is real."
Twenty years later, though, I find myself coming back to some of those same discussions, all thanks to one of the most confounding, innovative, and downright weird shows ever to grace network TV -- Fox's much loved but seldom watched "Fringe."
If you're unfamiliar with the show, it's a hard one to sum up in a paragraph. (Very minor spoilers ahead.) "Fringe" revolves around a secret branch of the FBI who deal with all things weird and wooly: think "X-Files" but without the aliens. Instead, "Fringe" gives us the possibility of a parallel dimension -- a second equally real world where the twin towers still stand, coffee beans are extinct, and every one of us has a doppleganger who may or not be anything like our twin selves.
If that's not weird enough, this past season introduced the concept of multiple timelines -- infinite different realities that play out in different ways based on our actions. Let's say your phone rings. If you get to it time, your future proceeds in one direction. If it goes to voicemail, your future goes a different way. Every decision that you make in life creates the possibility of multiple realities branching out from that moment. I just made a typo while I was writing that last sentence -- if I hadn't noticed and taken the time to correct it, would my life now be any different? If I wasn't home right now writing this column, maybe I'd be killed in a car wreck. Or maybe I'd be at the grocery store meeting my soulmate.
It got me thinking about what Alternate Shanes might be doing in alternate timelines this very second.
I had a pretty serious girlfriend when I was in college. What if we'd stayed together? I could be parents to teenagers by now. In THIS timeline, I still like to pretend that I'm a college student. In THAT timeline, I could be sending my KID to college. Unless there's another timeline where college tuition gets chopped in half, I'll pass.
Maybe there's a timeline where I decided not to come back from my vacation to Colorado a decade ago. In that timeline, maybe I'm a fitness buff who rides mountain bikes and rock climbs and has girls falling over him. Or me. Or whatever. But I can't imagine a timeline where I'm NOT so scared of bees and bugs that I'd be willing to hang out in nature for extended periods of time.
Better yet, maybe there's a timeline where I didn't give up on drum lessons in junior high because they were too hard. Maybe in that timeline, I'm a rock god instead of a guy who plays Rock Band on the X-Box. Then again, no matter the timeline, I'd still be 41 years old, which would mean I was probably a rock god a decade ago and I'm now fighting it out with Screech and Dennis Rodman for screen time on "Celebrity Rehab."
The truth is simple. If there indeed are millions upon millions of timelines going on right now based on the general decisions I've made, my guess is that all but a handful of those Alternate Shanes are sitting right here with me on this couch watching "The Voice" and being thankful for our shared collective weird little life.
Weirder yet, when "The Voice" got done, I channel-flipped to Discovery Science where a pack of quantum physicists just offered the theory that time as we know it is an illusion, and that instead of moving through time, we're really moving through an infinite number of static universes stacked together like a pile of photographs.
Like ol' Professor Whats-his-name showed me, "Hmm, that's sure something to think about, alright." But only for a few more minutes -- "South Park" comes on at 9.