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  • Writer's pictureJohn Kristof

The grass is always greener in an alternate timeline

Over the last couple years, I have been reflecting a lot on the tenth commandment, the admonition not to covet. As a reference point:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:17 NRSV).

The writer of Exodus offers a few examples of what we might covet that essentially translate to envying another person or possessions that belong to another person.

My struggles with coveting can include these things but surpass them as well. I am easily susceptible to “grass is greener” mentality. While I think my younger self would be pleased to learn where I am today, I still wrestle with discontentment, temporarily obsessing over what should be better.

In 2022's Oscar-decorated movie Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, the protagonist runs a laundromat, struggles with American bureaucracy, and takes care of her elderly, bitter father. She is visited by a version of her husband who is from a parallel dimension, an alternative history where she became a brilliant scientist. To save the multiverse, her alternate husband needed to visit the weakest version of her of any timeline. In most universes, she is one of the most powerful scientists who has ever lived. In this universe, she does laundry and pays taxes. In no other history was the protagonist as "bad at everything" as this one.

As good as that movie was, it stressed me out because I would be very nervous meeting versions of myself from alternative histories. I sometimes fear I am the least productive, least accomplished, least talented, loneliest version that I could have turned out to be. If I may borrow an image from this sci-fi world where alternative histories literally exist, I sometimes covet the lives I could have been living instead of my own. I covet a version of myself where I developed emotional intelligence sooner and maintained relationships I valued. I covet a life where I embraced something I was good at sooner. I wonder what kind of scholar I could have been if I learned coping skills for inattentiveness before opportunity passed me by. Essentially, I covet a life without regret. Of course, it is impossible to live a perfect, mistake-free, regretless life. And yet, I manage to covet something that does not even exist.

Traditional understandings of coveting still present issues for me, too, but often it is when I meet people who remind me of what I feel I should have been. I know a lot of people in academia, and I can be quite sad after spending time with them because I envy their expertise, the work they do, and the mentorship roles they have in students’ lives. I know talented artists and athletes who remind me I gave up when activities I enjoyed got hard. And so on.

A subtle consequence of these struggles is how coveting something else keeps me from maintaining what I do have. The more I dream about alternative lives or relationships I’ve lost, the less attentive I am to the people and gifts that I do have around me. If I do not redirect my focus toward the present and the future, the problem could get cyclical.

Presumably, a spiritually healthy place to take these feelings is resting in the sufficiency of God. I haven’t yet found messaging that works for myself. But as an old mentor told me, if God wants me to be in Chicago and I go to San Francisco instead, God isn’t going to just be in Chicago wondering where I am. Whatever I’ve done well or poorly in this life, God is present and seeks to draw me toward his will. Some days, I need to choose to get out of my head and listen for it.

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