Community and the "What If" Game

Community is one of the best shows on television right now. You might think I’m overrating such a low-rated and non-awarded show, but you’d be wrong.   At its worst, the show is “meh.” At its best, it is brilliant. What other show has had two epic paintball showdowns, a zombie invasion, and a claymation adventure in the span of two seasons? Answer: No other show.

Last year, I wrote about Community’s meta episode when our dear Asberger-y Abed became a messiah-like figure. Abed is the character I’m most enamored with, because he’s so unique. Unable to communicate with the other group members on an emotional level, he attempts to engage through pop culture and logic. The group treats him as their idiot savant, the amusing unknowing jester who becomes a sage at a moment’s notice.

Community’s most recent episode is one of those brilliant ones. It explores multiple timelines, that story-telling construct where the audience sees how the same situation can be changed by a single decision, as projected through various vantage points. And by the way, I was really hoping that Vantage Point was going to be a good movie. It wasn’t.

At Abed and Troy’s housewarming party, the group tosses a dice (a die?)  to see who goes downstairs to tip the pizza guy. With each throw of the dice (again, die?), six different scenarios are played out. Some elements occur in all timelines: pies, Eartha Kitt, marijuana, The Police’s “Roxanne.” But because certain characters are removed from the situation, other things happen. At least one ends in total utter disaster. But I won’t ruin the ending (and by the ending, I mean the tag of the episode).

The episode was a massive hit with everyone who watched it, both normal folks and television folks. It was clever, funny, and dark (Future editor’s note: And it has certain poignancy given events that will happen in the future of this television show’s production, i.e. Spring 2012). But so are other episodes. Why did this one resound?

Well, because we all do that. We all imagine a different roll of the dice, wondering “what if.” We all try to imagine what life would be like if we had chosen differently. If we hadn’t gone there at that time. Or if we hadn’t swapped those two events.

It’s natural. Our brains reason and feel very deeply. A mark of our species is the ability to recognize the impact of our decisions; we understand cause and effect. We see that if we act on something, there is a reaction. Because of that, we wonder if we acted rightly.

Remember the movie The Butterfly Effect, back when Ashton Kutcher was an actor? Well, the Butterfly Effect is a real concept, a way to explain the interrelatedness of all things. The flap of a butterfly’s wings affects the universe as a whole. I believe it – I believe in the tumbling effect of our domino lives. Nothing is isolated; nothing is simple. Everything has to do with everything else.

What do I toss my dice about? Whether or not I chose the right college. Or if I made the right choice working at school each summer instead of going home. Or if I should have studied abroad.

These things are little compared to some of the “what ifs” that people live in: what if I had checked on her earlier and seen that she had stopped breathing? What if I had left five minutes earlier and not run that red light? What if I had said yes instead of no?

It can be a fun game, but like the Community episode, the exercise in hypotheticals can turn dark very quickly. When “what ifs” turn into “if onlys” – that’s when things get dangerous. That’s when the game can destroy you.

“If onlys” steal your life.
They rob you of your joy and your perspective.
They set up a glittering mirage of your world as it could have been, a mirage that you might chase but you cannot grasp. Because it doesn’t exist.

That’s the problem with the worlds of “what if” and “if only.” They do not exist. They never were. They cannot be. In Abed’s mind, the toss of the dice created six alternate worlds with six different outcomes. But in real life, there is only one outcome. Only one world. This one.

Sometimes things happen to us. Sometimes they are not a decision we made. In my Harry Potter book, Voldemort just came back. Harry didn’t cause that. And on Downton Abbey, World War I just started. The Grantham family didn’t decide that. But now they each have decisions. Now they have to decide what to do, how to react, what comes next. Sometimes that means fighting back. Sometimes that means turning your home into a hospital. And sometimes that just simply means acknowledging your life will never be the same and moving forward.

A girl I know lost her brother a few weeks ago. I’m sure that she wishes a different butterfly had flapped its wings, or the dice had rolled a different number. And I wish that too, for her and her family. Her world is now altered in every way. And now she has to figure out what to do with that.

I do believe that there is a God who holds this world in his hands. I believe he knows the future and the past and all of time and space. I believe that he interacts with this world through a variety of ways. And I believe that he’s given us the faculties to make decisions and hopefully the wisdom to make the right ones.

I’m no theologian. I’m not going to debate predestination or free will or how God intervenes or why bad things happen to good people. Remember? I was a baby who had a tumor removed from her abdomen before she was two years old. I don’t know why these things happen.

All I know is that we cannot play the games of “what if” and “if only.” Because while we do, real life is happening all around us. The leaves are turning colors. Babies are learning to speak. Wise elderly folk are losing their memories. Time doesn’t wait for you while you wish for that alternate timeline.

This is life. This is now. These are the choices that you have to make. Make them, using those brain cells in your head, the wisdom of those around you, and God’s gentle nudging. Make them and walk forward, looking ahead and not back. Because there is no “what if.” There is only what is.

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