When You’re Caught Between Worlds

Ryan Fan


What if you could transport planets with the snap of the finger and find yourself in a whole new environment?

I’ve come to realize that in life, there are simply different worlds you occupy. For me, I have a lot of different obligations, hobbies, and relationships but navigating them often feels like I’m entering portals from one world to another, all day, every day.

There’s the world of my faith. There’s the world of my work. There’s the world of my writing. There’s the world of my relationship. There’s the world of my running. I struggle to realize it’s the same person in myself behind all of these things, but it is. To compound feeling like being caught between worlds of all my daily obligations, there’s the world of my identity: as an Asian-American, I’m caught between the traditional, conservative values of my parents and the westernized, more open values of my peers. People in different political parties occupy different worlds.

Having it all occupy the same space of my brain is confusing, and sometimes, I feel like a shapeshifter. I move between teaching to going on a run and feel like a completely new person, and I wonder whether I’m overthinking. I don’t know, but I don’t think so.

I feel like I’m constantly shapeshifting between worlds. And I don’t know which world matters most. But I know that watching a TV show is entering another world. Reading a book is entering another world. Texting my friend is going into another world. Going to sleep is another world.

I’ve thought about world-shifting frequently recently. When I was in the darkest point of my life, I wish I told myself, “there’s a whole world out there.” It was true — because there was a whole world out there and a change in scenery and a new environment helped make a massive difference for my mental health. Switching into the writing world, all that matters is that I put more words on the page. But switching into the teaching world, what matters is that I plan well, teach well, and keep up with grading. There’s always a lot to do in the world of teaching and not enough time to do it. After about 5 p.m. on any given day, the teaching world evaporates. In comes the rest of my life.

Those are boundaries between work and play, but is it really possible to separate worlds like that when you’re caught so deeply in between them all? I don’t know, and I don’t really think so. Just because I’m not doing anything teaching-related doesn’t mean I don’t think about teaching. And just because we try to separate our personal and work worlds doesn’t mean we really can.

When I hung out with my friends from work, I remember we had a strict rule not to wear anything that could identify ourselves. We’re teachers, and we simply shouldn’t show our more personal and real selves to distort our professional image as teachers in public.

We are all occupying multiple worlds, and the fact that we interweave and go into every one of them like portals fascinates me.

Physicist Sean Carroll believes in the Many Worlds hypothesis, the idea in quantum mechanics that the universe splits itself into new branches, and those branches create multiple versions of themselves. Carroll believes that reality is described by a single quantum mechanical wave function, so chairs, tables, floors, and everything that seems separate is actually interwoven.

The Many Worlds hypothesis is a concept I barely understand, so bear with me — in quantum mechanics, an electron is the superposition, or average, of all locations. We always see the electron in one location, but it doesn’t actually have one set location. Hugh Everett, the inventor of the Many Worlds hypothesis, said that every different part of superposition, everywhere we see the electron in a different position, actually exists:

“It’s just that they’re in separate, non-interacting worlds,” Carroll says.

Carroll started spending time thinking about what reality is, and the only reality is the world you’re in right now. All of our worlds exist, and in Carroll’s book, Something Deeply Hidden, Carroll concludes that there can be multiple copies of all of us, but that we should behave in the world we’re in as if no other world existed.


Bridging off Carroll’s quantum mechanics research and conclusions, we need to rationalize that it’s okay to be caught between worlds and have various worlds present. Life is full of paradoxes and contradictions, and we occupy spaces that directly contradict others — people who are strict environmentalist fly jets. Some Wall Street bankers are socialists. Religious people wrestle with whether they believe in a higher power.

As for our ability to occupy different worlds, here arrives our struggle to deal with nuance. Yes, we are all the same people occupying a variety of different worlds, but the reason that causes us such significant discomfort is that we tend to see the world in such absolutes. The electron always has to be in one place for us — it can’t be superimposed somewhere on a spectrum like it is in reality.

And so my worlds of running, teaching, faith, race, culture, and expectations aren’t so separate after all. In fact, in a solar system of worlds where each of these things occupies space, I would be somewhere between them. I’m not sure where because I, too, am just an electron, superimposed as an average for where I am and have been at different times.

And you are superimposed as the middle ground between all your identities — being in between, caught between worlds, is simply a part of the human condition.

Photo from Lars_Nissen on Pixabay

Originally published on October 15, 2020 on Publishous.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD

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