I play a video game called No Man’s Sky.
The setting for this space exploration game is a universe composed of over 18 quintillion planets (or to be more precise, 18,446,744,073,709,551,616). As this is an open sandbox game, the player – whose in-game character is only known as The Traveler – has absolute freedom over where to go and explore.
If I want to only stay on the planet that I start the game on and search around every tree, bay, and cave, I can do that.
If I want to only explore all the planets in the third solar system I warp into, I can do that.
If I want to leap into the void and guide my starship through the endless vastness of space to reach the center of the galaxy, I can do that.
In the game there is a guiding presence called Atlas. It is entirely the free choice of the player to accept or spurn the advice Atlas gives on how to proceed in the game.
No Man’s Sky is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tale wound up to 11 as it is a game that offers the player the most “either-or” choices I have ever seen in my years of playing video games. The number of paths that confronts the player is near limitless.
Each path taken (go into the cave or not, enter that abandoned building or not, attack that freighter or not, etc.) moves the player along a path but each branch not taken also is an opportunity lost.
In this way, No Man’s Sky is a great deal like life.
Every day of every life is filled with choices. Each selection made moves that player along but it also shuts off the opportunity the choice not taken could have provided. Life can be full of “What Ifs?” and counter-factual examinations of what could have been if only A had happened and not B or if XYZ had taken place instead of QRS.
As a person who was put for adoption, the “What Ifs” of my life start the moment I was conceived.
What if my biological mother had not carried me to full term? How would that have affected every person I have touched in my life?
What if another family had adopted me instead of the wonderful, fabulous, and loving couple I was so damn lucky to be placed with.
From these initial branches, the paths of all my possibilities branch out to nearly an infinite number (or at least 18 quintillion). It is the large decision that I can easily sift through the “What If” machine and try and spin out the counter-factual road not taken and imagine where it would have deposited me. However, large decisions come from small experiences. Can I spin a yarn where something minor weaves itself into a whole new tapestry?
This is one such story.
Thirty years ago this month, I saw a theatrical production called The Traveler. It is a play by the Belgian artist Jean-Claude van Itallie that tells the story of a brilliant composer who suffers a stroke and is afflicted with aphasia. The composer must come to grips with his new reality that he can no longer speak intelligibly.
I remember enjoying the play. I remember being intrigued by the themes of loss, identity, and communication that this production had. I remember liking the play because it had references to Shakespeare.
I also remember The Traveler because it had imagery of Tarot. This production laid the seed for my future interest in learning how to read Tarot cards. This interest would reach its crest five years later when I did indeed learn how to interpret the images and would give readings to friends, relatives, and strangers. I haven’t read Tarot in over two decades and that interest has waned.
The path that The Traveler took me down led to Tarot, but that branch of my life has ended.
That’s my story.
It’s not much of a story, I grant you that, but the tales that could be in this space never happened.
This is one such non-story.
Thirty years ago this month, I saw a theatrical production called The Traveler. I saw this play when I was back home in California during the Spring Break in my freshman year at Northwestern University. When I started my educational career at NU, I was majoring in communication with a focus on radio broadcasting. However, after only six months of attending this university, I was becoming disenchanted with the quality and quantity (poor and few) of the courses available to me to learn the craft of radio production. I loved acting and broadcasting and a life of public performance was what I had always dreamed I would do with my life. However, the cold hand of Reality was resting on my shoulder and whispering to me that the career I wished for may not be possible at NU.
I had also just suffered a mildly embarrassing incident where I gave a poor audition, so perhaps it was time I realized that the life of a performer was not for me. Not everyone is cut out to be an actor or radio personality, so if this was not my path, then what was I to be?
I sit in the theater – in my state of disillusionment and soul-searching – and I watch Jean-Claude van Itallie’s work in stunned silence and deep appreciation. While viewing the composer struggle to regain his sense of identity over the blow Fate has dealt him, I realize that I, too, can fight my despair and reshape my life anew. The play is over. There is applause. The lights come up. I know what I must do to travel down my new path.
In the days that remain over the Spring Break, I plumb my brain to come up with other vocations that I am interested in. With half a dozen of candidates on my ballot, I arrive back in Evanston and make an appointment with my academic counselor to go over my choices and chart my new course. It is at that meeting, where I choose my new major that puts me down the path that led me to here and my career as a….
And this is where my non-story ends.
It is interesting to note what my life could have been like had I truly had such an epiphany during The Traveler.
Where would I be now?
What would I be doing now?
Who would I be now?
What stories would I have?
What stories would I not have?
I cannot know the answers to any of those questions, but I can surmise that I would be a vastly different person far afield from the path I travel now.
P.S. In No Man’s Sky, I have named my starship The Nabam Sea. Why that name is a story for another day.