There are lives we lead, lives we think we ought to lead, and lives we dream of leading. Dreams are one thing; everyone has those. Desires are another thing and the range of desires are wide. Some desires automatically contradict others; to have one is to automatically abrogate another, like being a famous rock star on tour and being a stable, loving parent to a newborn. They’re discontinuous as a practical possibility, but as long as we’re in the safety of our private thoughts, there’s no reason they can’t share space.
At the gym today I was listening to a superb podcast on the nature of time. With cross cultural elements to the story, as well as mind-bending aspects of astrophysics and quantum mechanics, the story ranged far and probed deeply. It held my attention, but a strange thing began to happen as I listened, one that’s happened to me a thousand times before. Even as the superbly produced story played, I couldn't help but be aware of a smart pizzicato violin embedded into the soundscape running in the background. The producer of the podcast deftly applied that pizzicato only during the brief moments when he or she wanted to indicate the passage of time. The plucked violin strings became an audible proxy for time escaping. The pizzicato, employed as a metaphor, began to compel my attention as much as the subject it described.
I found myself pondering that violin for the rest of the morning.
Somebody mastered that instrument, despite the fact that violins are challenging things to master. Somebody perfected the ability to pluck its strings in sequence and make a wonderful sound. Somebody else figured out how to engineer the podcast. Somebody researched, wrote, and recorded the podcast. Of course, physicists and journalists and technical staff in the radio station also had things to contribute to the story, small and large. Participants from each group appeared in various forms in the podcast. I found my thoughts drifting after the story ended, wondering which one was more interesting than the other.
That’s my thesis. We don't do most things. There are more choices then there are days in a lifetime. More choices, always, and many of them interesting. Some people don't struggle with this. They take it as a statement of fact, as ordinary as the expectation that the sky will be blue. Why ponder the color of the sky? But I ponder. I not only like to know why the sky is blue (particles in the atmosphere scatter the blue part of the visible spectrum, if you’re wondering) but I wonder about the significance of that reality. I know others who do, too.
Once in a while we read about the polyglot wizards who do everything well, who live seemingly superhuman lives. Film director and producer Steven Soderbergh famously runs his sets like fine clockworks, largely timed to his extraordinary abilities to handle many of the key production positions himself. Elon Musk bounces from enterprise to enterprise, presenting the image of a person who has more time in his day and more energy in his body than the rest of us. E.O. Wilson seems to be able to write elegant books, conduct vital scientific research, and present jovial lectures to wide and disparate audiences. But the truth is, they’re just like you and me. They’re making choices, and the ones they’re not making might make your heart break.
That’s why you’re doing what you’re doing now. No joke: you’re making choices, everyday. You’re making choices, and you’re living with their consequences. Sure, there are plenty of things about which you might have limited influence, and natural barriers keeping you from certain dreams and desires. Nonetheless, there are violins embedded in the podcasts you’re listening to at the gym. There are violins, which inevitably means there are violin players. That means there’s no end to the potential ways you might choose to lead your life.