When I was a teenager I came up with this theory of life that I’m sure is not unique. Basically, the idea was that from your own perspective you live until you grow old and then accept death. While someone else may perceive that you, say, die in a car crash, from your point of view you survive the crash, or maybe you were never in that crash. It was a perfect teenage theory in that it was inane and neither provable nor dis-provable.
The human mind tries to bring order to chaos, which explains why we think we can beat slot machines and why we come up with religions. As the universe is based on the laws of physics, of action and reaction and equilibrium, the human mind seeks equilibrium, creates explanations to fill in where there are none. I don’t know what was going on when I came up with my theory. Maybe I was bored. But it was a natural action, an effort to fill some of the space in my world.
I thought of this while watching the third and final season of The Leftovers, a series that takes place after the Departure when two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears without explanation. Or at least there is no explanation until people start creating their own. The series is about grief and loss, of course, and its also about relationships and what they are built on, but especially in the final season it’s about what we need to believe about things that can’t be explained. Kevin Garvey believes that he needs to die to really live. Nora Durst believes she needs a scientific-ish explanation for why her husband and two children disappeared. By the end of the series Kevin and Nora are at peace, ready to love each other in whatever time they have left. The explanations no longer matter.
Kevin makes his choice in the third-to-last episode, when he dies again and enters Purgatory or Keaven or whatever you want to call it, where he is both an international assassin and the President of the United States. He is there to assassinate himself to prevent himself from blowing up the world with nuclear bombs, but success or failure ultimately hinges on the last page of the romance novel he wrote. The key passage is as follows:
To lie beside her, to comfort her as he wept, to show her he was small, for her to know that and touch his cheek and whisper words softly in his ear, all of that was a nightmare. All he knew to do was run.
After hearing these words read aloud, the assassin asks the President to kill him, understanding that they have messed things up with Nora. The solution is not to run back to Kevin’s alternate reality — and I theorize that when Kevin was suffocating himself with a plastic bag over his head that he was going back to that place, not pulling it off at the last second — but to stay in the real world and to be vulnerable. Sometimes the theory you need is that all theories are meaningless and what you really need is another person.
In the finale, Nora reveals to Kevin that she went to the place where the missing two percent went, a world that is the mirror image of theirs, a largely empty world where ninety-eight percent of the world suddenly vanished. The symmetry is beautiful even if the story doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, yet I think Nora was telling the truth. (Of course it doesn’t matter what I believe, only that Kevin believes her.)
Nora’s alternate world is no harder to believe in than Kevin’s alternate world, and like Kevin’s alternate world — where his penis plays a key role — Nora’s world is consistent with the character we’ve come to know. Nora would conjure a mirror image, would conjure a world in which her husband and children were still in their former house and had moved on, a world where she could convince the scientist to build another machine so she could come back.
Like Nora, I have difficulty believing in what I can’t see or what can’t be proven. I love reading about the historicity of the Bible, and if I’m honest my main enjoyment comes from the futility in finding evidence for much of what makes up Christian mythology. The mirror image alternate world appeals to me because its simple and neat. The problem, of course, is that there is no reason that the split is 98/2. There is no explanation for why people ended up in one group or the other. That would eat away at me, that randomness greater evidence of a goddess than all the stories I learned as a child, as satisfying to me as the Artist’s Signature in Carl Sagan’s Contact.
Like Kevin, I have difficulty in making myself vulnerable, of not running. What clothes would I wear in my alternate reality? I have no idea. What would I have to hear to stop visiting my alternate reality, to stay in the present, to feel my feelings as my therapist recommends? I don’t know. Maybe this laptop and these words are my alternate reality, my avoidance and denial.
I mention this because part of the greatness of The Leftovers is that it leaves room for us to fill in the gaps with our own theories and ideas, and not about why the people departed but about what we are sustained by, what we have to believe to make things bearable. I don’t know what happens when we die, only that I will die one day and I doubt I will come back. How will I spend my time between now and then, and will I learn enough in the interim to make a happy ending?