What would you do with infinite do-overs? What if, every time the going got tough, the tough (you) went back in time to try again? 

That’s the superpower of a species of jellyfish called Turritopsis dohrnii—the “Immortal Jellyfish.”

Jellyfish start their life cycle as eggs, which grow into larvae called planula. Think of this as the jellyfish’s toddler stage. A planula is essentially a little drifting squiggle, and eventually it settles to the ocean floor. There, it “clones” itself. 

As if the immortality superpower wasn’t enough like science fiction, Turritopsis dohrnii, like all jellyfish, clones itself in the middle stage of its life cycle when the planula, resting on the ocean floor, sprouts into a colony of polyps. All the polyps are identical to each other and develop into identical adults in the medusa stage—the part of the lifecycle where jellyfish take on the familiar shape of a translucent dome and lacy tentacles.

Imagine if we cloned ourselves as a normal part of middle school and each of our clones, identical to us in every way, went off to live independent lives. It would be like living alongside versions of ourselves from parallel universes. If we lived like jellyfish, we might take comfort in the fact that while we made mistakes, were carried along by currents to uncomfortable environments, or got eaten by other creatures, somewhere else in our city (or ocean), another version of ourselves lived happily without those mistakes and misfortunes. 

In nature, the persistence of one’s genetic material is generally considered a win. Jellyfish are winning at the ruthless, high-stakes game of life by multiplying—giving their genetic identity more chances at survival. But as people, we’re often jealous, and we suffer from a fear of missing out. 

We tend to think life should be fair. Positively, this motivates us to advocate for more equal distribution of opportunity, especially if we suspect that we are among those being left out. But misery also loves company, as the old saying goes. And humans seldom wish to suffer alone or unfairly.

I was asked by a friend once if, assuming the existence of infinite alternate realities and alternate selves, I would rather my life in my timeline be one of the best of all possible worlds, one of the worst, or somewhere in the middle. 

I answered almost immediately that, of course, I wanted to be living the best possible version of reality. 

My friend said he would prefer that the life he was living, and this version of himself, be an average sort of reality, an average life, tending toward the worse end of the spectrum. His life was pretty good, he said. He was largely content. But he would like to believe that the majority of his other selves in other timelines were having a better time. He didn’t want his life to be the best possible version of reality. 

This was a pretty unselfish response, I thought. My friend hoped that hypothetical people in hypothetical realities were living better and apparently had no fear or bitterness at the prospect that he was missing out.

If some part of you lives on after you and perhaps lives better, that is a sort of immortality. Jellyfish experience this, but Turritopsis dohrnii also literally regenerates when injured—or even, according to BBC Earth, having already died, Turritopsis dohrnii sink to the ocean floor, wind back the clock, and regenerates as a polyp. Jellyfish “clone” themselves at the polyp stage, so a Turritopsis dohrnii can regenerate as a polyp and “clone” itself into multiple adult medusae.

It’s like having infinite additional lives in a video game. Imagine if you could revert to middle school, replicate yourself, and try college again, or make a new first impression with someone you respect, or rewrite any regret. 

But before we get too jealous of a jellyfish, even an “immortal” one, it’s important to consider what we mean by “life” and “fresh start.” 

January is the season of fresh starts. But according to a recent Forbes article, while a recent YouGov survey found over a third of Americans may make New Year’s resolutions, a Forbes Health/One Poll survey found that most people give up on their resolutions in less than four months. 

Our habitual cycle of resolve and failure may reveal a simplistic assumption—that there is such a thing as a perfect life, a perfect run of the game. We may think that with enough fresh starts, we’ll eventually get it right. While setting goals is admirable, it’s easy to forget that the rich variety of experience—good and bad—create the complex texture of life and make us who we are. Practicing an instrument or sport creates muscle memory; the time spent experimenting and making mistakes is what grows our ability and shapes our style. To erase our experience and start over would erase what makes us ourselves. 

Perhaps instead of wishing to start over with the new year, we should practice mindfulness and gratitude for who we were before and ask, gently, “What’s next?”


Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Bachware (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

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