We’ve all played the “what if?” game at some point in our lives. What if I had gone to a bigger school? What if I had taken a better job? What if I had focused more on my career? What if I had not married and had kids? Would my life be any better? We often imagine how our lives could have turned out differently, or better, if we had made different choices along the way. 

Blake Crouch’s mind-bending novel Dark Matter explores this fantasy about paths not taken. The book follows a brilliant physicist named Jason Dessen. Despite his promising academic career, Jason chose to abandon his research to be a present husband and father. Years later, one night, he is abducted (read the book to know by whom) and awakens in a strange parallel world where he took the opposite path. In this alternate world, he solely pursued his research career and achieved staggering heights of fame as a successful physicist. However, in this world, he has no family.

As Jason strays further into this cold, alternate world without loving family connections, he finds himself feeling empty and lost despite his professional achievements. Something essential to his humanity is missing – deep human connection. As he jumps from one world to another in this bizarre multiverse created by different choices, he is faced with a profound truth: “We’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.” 

Alternate realities make him realize that the life he chose, filled with family dinners and bedtime stories, might be mundane and not glamorous, but it’s what makes him who he is. In his original reality, Jason’s roles as spouse and parent aren’t weights dragging him down, but anchors giving him a deeper sense of self. His wife’s words ring powerfully true: “As long as I’m with you, I know exactly who I am.”

In our achievement-obsessed society, we’re often fed the idea that forsaking family commitments is the price of achieving big goals, that being encumbered by loved ones holds us back from reaching our highest potential. But as the book Dark Matter illustrates, the “highest potential” is an empty victory if it comes at the cost of our core humanity.

The book doesn’t dismiss Jason’s longing to also have achieved more in his professional life. Having loving family bonds and pursuing selfless passions are not mutually exclusive. But there is existential danger in needing one at the expense of the other, of letting personal glory entirely crowd out our capacity for selfless love and connection.

For Jason, being truly present for his loved ones attunes him to “a much larger and stranger reality” than any solo pursuit of glory. His family isn’t an obstacle to self-actualization, but the very source of it. Their selfless, everyday bonds make him more emotionally prosperous than any professional peak could alone.

This really connects with a very basic need in all of us – the craving for human connection that runs deeper than our ambitions. Even in Jason’s cold, achievement-focused parallel world, he feels unmoored without those grounding links. As social beings, we’re shaped by the connections that transcend our autonomous choices and accomplishments. While families provide that bond for many, they aren’t the only wellspring. For some, it may be loyal friendships, civic ties, or chosen communities that attune us to “a larger reality” beyond our self-contained strivings. The anchors just look different.

But the message is similar – we’re more than just the sum of our individual decisions and goals. We’re co-created by the everyday loves and attachments that seed our lives with higher meaning and wholeness.

As Crouch writes, Dark Matter is “For anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken.” The novel’s true insight is that no road, no matter how glittering with accolades, can fully satisfy if we’ve surrendered the core of our humanity – the simple, transcendent pull toward deep human connection.

We’re wired to achieve, to constantly strive and choose new paths. But we’re also created to seek the relational bonds that most deeply tell us who we are. When those two longings operate in balance, we feel most whole and purposeful.

As we seek after our ambitions and push toward new horizons, we shouldn’t let that all-consuming quest make us lose sight of what makes those achievements finally resonate – the lived connections to something larger than our autonomous self. Whether family, friendship, or community, those anchoring ties may be the greatest legacy and “success” we leave behind.


Written by Joshua George