7 min read

You forked the multiverse and feel bad about it, now what

When horrible things happen, we don't know what it means. We can only guess and conjecture and beat ourselves up over things we thought we could control. But it could be, with any luck in how all the atoms collided, it could be the very best thing that ever fucking happened to us.
The movie poster for Everything Everywhere All At Once
The movie poster for Everything Everywhere All At Once

There's a story arch to my life. We all have them. Christians refer to this story as your "testimony" and it usually has something to do with Jesus "saving" you. My story arch has never been about Jesus, but rather my ascent from being a poor, abused kid, raised by ignorant religious parents on the dirt roads of Kansas to the person I am now. The person I'm always working toward becoming.

For most of my life, I've understood a particular narrative a certain way. Like going your whole life thinking that Jesus loves capitalism. I knew who the hero was (me) and who the villain was (a fucking pig cop), the rising action of my arrest and and the fallout after. But I've misunderstood the whole thing. I've had it all wrong.

Here we go.

Evelyn Quan with a googly eye on her forehead

A decision made

In the fall of 2004, I was in my last semester of college at Missouri State. I decided to go out one night to see a girl I was infatuated with, not an uncommon occurrence, the plan being I would stop by the club she was at for a little bit and then go see another friend who had an apartment in downtown Springfield, Missouri. And I did all that. I had a sip of her drink, but didn't order one of my own. Went back to my friend's place and fell asleep on his couch watching a Bond movie.

For some reason, I woke up at 2am in the morning, convinced that I needed to drive home and go to the church at the 10am service. I hadn't been to church for months. I was feeling guilty about it. I don't remember why, probably a prior conversation with my dad or someone who thought church was important, but I got up and decided to head home.

When I was leaving the downtown area, I forgot to use a turn signal. A cop pulled me over. First he thought I was drunk (I wasn't). Then he thought I was high. I didn't smoke weed or take any other drug until I was in my late 30s, so I was obviously not high. But they made me do the balance walking and nose touching and then they arrested me for no reason except that my diet was Mountain Dew and cigarettes and I slept very irregularly. I looked like Edward but without the sparkling skin.

Months later, my piss test came back clean. Due to my lack of funds and a horrible lawyer, I still had to do community service and this particular mark is still on my record. For years as an adult, every time I walked through Global Entry, there was a big black "X" across my face.

Multiple Evelyns in Everything Everywhere All At Once
Multiple Evelyns in Everything Everywhere All At Once

The multiverse forked

"But Zach, you didn't make the decision to forget your blinker." Maybe. I could have. It was 2am in the morning and no one else was out. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't.

For months I was just livid, but I didn't have a lot of options about my life. I had plans to go to the military as an officer because I couldn't find a job in tech. Most of the jobs at the time were backend jobs–databases and PHP and servers–I hated that shit. I wanted to build websites with buttons and animations and legible text, but a career as a Frontend Engineer didn't yet exist. So what was I going to do? Well, maybe I could go into the Navy as an officer. I had driven up to the recruiting office in Kansas City. A $20K sign-on bonus? Where do I sign.

And I felt horrible because all these plans I had were shattered. I beat myself up over and over and over. Cursed that shitty piece of shit cop. Vowed to sue his ass. Vowed to leave Springfield and when I came back, find that little fuck and ruin his life.

And then I realized that it would be months and months before the whole thing would be over. I was stuck there.

A screenshot of Waymond Wang traversing multiple realities
Waymond Wang traversing multiple realities

You don't know what you don't know (which is almost everything)

There's a famous quantum experiment called the double slit experiment. It's an old experiment, but probably the first time in human history that physicists realized that the way we thought about the universe was missing something. Here's the idea, taken from this Verge article (which I recommend reading in its entirety):

We thought you could shoot single electrons or photons, just single particles, toward a wall where you had put two slits. They could go either on the left side or the right side, through the slit, and then hit a wall behind it.

You can imagine, like bullets or billiard balls, a bunch of them would either go through the right slit or through the left slit. Then you would see, on the back wall, a bunch of them hitting the right or the left. They actually tried to do that experiment, and what they saw was that on the back wall, you did not have the pattern you expected.

You had waves — you had the electron or the photon going through both slits at the same time, interfering with itself behind that wall, and then hitting the other wall as if it was a wave.

Ok. But what does that mean.

So, they’re thinking: How the hell is it possible that one thing was going through two places at the same time.

Then, [Nobel Prize-winning physicist] Richard Feynman was like, Wait a minute, what if we had a third slit, and the fourth one, and the fifth one?

Sure enough, you would see an even more complex pattern in the back as if the electron was going through all four or five of them at the same time. He realized, wait a minute, if you keep making slits, at some point, the wall with all the slits disappears and becomes just the empty space through which light and matter travels anyway.

It travels through everything — it takes every path, at all times. It’s actually a perfect analogy to the title of the movie. Like, the title of the movie is scientifically accurate.

Everything Everywhere All at Once?

That is exactly how the universe works. Space and time are one single, singular construct. There’s not like you have space and then time; it’s space x time. Moreover, quantum space time is a superposition: a quantum superposition of an infinite number of space times, all happening at the same time.

When I look back at that arrest, writing from my home in Santa Barbara, I realize now that out of all the multiverses that is probably my life, I could very well be living in the best one. And that arrest could very well be the price I paid for it.

See, it was because of the arrest that I had a lot of time on my hands. I graduated school, but couldn't go anywhere. During the same time, I realized that the military wasn't going to like my record if I wanted to be an officer. Nevermind the almost countless people in my life telling me that I would hate the military. I wrote a novel instead, mostly about my life, mostly about how I was a shitty person.

After that, and my community service was done, I moved to Austin, Texas, to be near my sister and nephew. I met my wife a few months later. Found some frontend jobs, built a whole bunch of Wordpress sites, met a guy in some forums who needed help with K2, a Wordpress theme. He ended up recommending me for a job at GoToMeeting in Santa Barbara. I ended up getting it, moved here in 2008, worked for Sonos after, applied for Slack in 2016, got the job, company went public and I came back to Santa Barbara and bought a house.

None of that would have happened, the best things about my life never would have happened, without that arrest. It took a horrible thing to set me on the right path, and there are countless multiverses where that never happened and those poor Zachs are fucking miserable or dead or both.

Jamie Lee Curtis in Everything Everwhere All At Once
Jamie Lee Curtis in Everything Everywhere All At Once

Now what

I look back now and realize that the thing I thought was a blip which never should have happened was, in this reality, and maybe every reality in which I exist, everything. The thing that course corrected the path I walked so that I could be happy, healthy, and loved. The thing that stopped other horrible things from happening. Maybe other things that I wouldn't have survived.

We can never really know because we can't look under the hood of reality and perceive all the lives and choices we make. That is, in essence, the human experience. This experience where almost every good piece of information is missing and the context we have is insultingly limited and given the fact that none of asked to be here, a life that we have little to no control over.

When horrible things happen, we don't know what it means. We can only guess and conjecture and beat ourselves up over things we thought we could control. A fork in the multiverse doesn't always feel divinely inspired. In fact, I doubt that it ever does. Sometimes it's painful or seemingly insignificant or maybe it looks like the end of the world.

But it could be, with any luck in how all the atoms collided, it could be the very best thing that ever fucking happened to us.

We'll never know the full extent of how our lives forked. All we can do is walk the path in front of us the best we know how. Learn from our decisions and try to make better ones. That's all anyone, anywhere, at any time, can ever ask of us.