Love Across Universes
There’s a scene near the end of Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAAO) that tends to make me cry (or cry more). The scene’s between Evelyn and her daughter, Joy. Evelyn and Joy have both gained the ability to access different, parallel versions of their own lives across the multiverse. So Evelyn can snap into a universe where she’s become a movie star and escape from her duller life as a laundromat owner, for example. In a way, this is a physical confirmation of Evelyn’s feeling of having wasted her potential. In every other universe, she seems to be more impressive. This feeling trickles down to Joy, who feels like a source of shame rather than pride to Evelyn. Joy, in this scene, is overwhelmed by these feelings. She storms out of the laundromat, trying to get away from Evelyn. Evelyn stops her in the parking lot.
Evelyn: Wait. You are getting fat. And you never call me even though we have a family plan, and it’s free. You only visit when you need something. And you got a tattoo and I don’t care if it’s supposed to represent our family. You know I hate tattoos. And of all the places I could be, why would I want to be here with you? Yes, you’re right. It doesn’t make sense.
Waymond (Evelyn’s husband): Evelyn, stop. That’s enough.
Joy: Let her finish.
Evelyn: Maybe it’s like you said. Maybe there is something out there, some new discovery that will make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit. Something that explains why you still went looking for me through all of this noise. And why, no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always, want to be here with you.
Joy (crying) : So what? You’re just gonna ignore everything else? You could be anything, anywhere. Why not go somewhere where your daughter is more than just this? Here, all we get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes any sense.
Evelyn: Then I will cherish these few specks of time.
Evelyn embodies something important about love here. When we love someone, it’s not just because they have qualities that make them lovable. In a loving relationship, you can trust your spouse not to just leave you if you become less attractive. You wouldn’t trade in a friend that you love for someone just like her but slightly funnier. If you have a good relationship with your family, it would be hard to imagine that you’d trade them in for slightly upgraded substitutes. As the philosopher Troy Jollimore writes, when we love, “we allow our appreciation of our beloveds to silence other values.”
Our love, if it is love, must be at least partially independent of our beloveds’ qualities. And this is what we want from our loved ones, too. Don’t you want a partner who loves you for you? Often, like Joy, if someone we love is making us feel like we are not good enough, we don’t just want them to assure us of our admirable qualities. What we want to hear is that we are loved in spite of whatever qualities we might have.
This is puzzling, though. After all, we choose our partners and friends (partially) because of their good qualities. And we often hope that we’ve been selected for our good qualities, too (rather than, say, for no reason at all). Perhaps we pick out individuals primarily based on their desirable qualities but, after time, these qualities become secondary in importance. After time, you and the other person have a shared history, mutual trust, and/or an understanding of each other’s vulnerabilities, among other things. As the philosopher David Velleman puts it, in loving relationships, our recognition of our loved one’s valuable qualities stays the same, but our valuation of that person nonetheless increases. They are more than replaceable vessels or what Nora Kreft calls “seats of valuable qualities.”
Of course, there are times when we encounter the tragedy of needing to separate from loved ones because either your or their qualities have completely changed. For example, perhaps a loving married couple decides that they need to separate after one becomes extremely religious while the other remains atheistic. Such separations needn’t indicate a lack of love, though a feeling of losing love for the other is often accompanied with a sense that the other person has lost the essential qualities that made them the person they are. This is why people say things like, “He’s just not the same person that he used to be.” This, however, is quite different than merely saying that one’s partner has become a less desirable person. And certainly, a loving connection to another person provides that relationship with a remarkably stronger insulation against qualitative changes than a relationship merely based on desire.
This, in my view, explains an important difference between our more quotidian, practical attitudes and our deeper, loving attitudes. In ordinary life, we mostly care about things insofar as they hold certain desirable qualities. For example, I only order the chow mein because it’s tasty. This makes sense. It would not make much sense for me to have an unflinching motivation to order the chow mein that carries over to possible worlds where the chow mein is poorly made. In other words, it would also be irrational for me to have a motivation to order some serving of chow mein no matter what— a motivation that remains insensitive to quality changes to the chow mein across possible worlds.
By contrast, our loving motivations and attitudes do track individuals across possible worlds. Evelyn doesn’t just love ‘her daughter’(under that description). She loves Joy. Evelyn’s love for Joy does not rely on Joy’s possession of any particular qualities or her occupying a particular social role. Evelyn’s love for Joy is what ancient philosophers have called ‘agape.’ Agape is, after all, a valuation of another that is not based on reasons or desirable qualities that person possesses. As Alan Soble puts it, “The very idea of agape is the idea of a love that is not grounded in the attractiveness of its object.”
You might have noticed that I’ve used the term ‘possible worlds’ instead of ‘parallel worlds’ in a couple of places. ‘Possible worlds’ are a bit like parallel worlds, but are conceptually different. Most philosophers don’t actually believe possible worlds exist; they are merely possible. But this has nothing to do with believing that parallel universes exist. Saying “there’s a possible world where I am a movie star” is basically just saying that my being a movie star is possible. Saying “there’s a parallel world where I am a movie star” means that somewhere in a parallel universe, I’m actually a movie star. The Daniels, however, brilliantly use parallel worlds in the multiverse as a kind of metaphor for possible worlds: paths we might have taken, ways we might have been better, etc. The multiverse also acts as a perfect metaphor for how agape tracks our loved ones across possible worlds. After all, many other versions of Evelyn have every single good quality Evelyn has, but in greater degree. The same may be assumed of Joy. Nonetheless, Evelyn has a particular love for her own Joy simply because she is her Joy.
Of course, Evelyn isn’t able to express this love at first. Throughout much of the film, Evelyn tries to ‘help’ Joy by blaming Joy’s undesirable qualities on Joy’s ‘evil’ alter-ego, Jobu Tupaki (or, in Evelyn’s terms, ‘Chu Chu Chewbacca’). But this just reconfirms Joy’s fears that her mom really doesn’t accept her darker qualities. Evelyn, over the course of the film, learns how to express her love for Joy in the right way. Evelyn doesn’t love Joy more in universes where she is less moody, calls her more, and doesn’t have tattoos. Evelyn loves Joy unconditionally, and this shows through how her love tracks Joy through the various parallel universes, understood here as metaphors for possible worlds.
As Evelyn learns this and becomes more aware of love’s qualities, she also becomes more capable of accepting herself and her life. This is why, precisely the moment before the scene between Evelyn and Joy that I began with, Evelyn confronts her father and her need for his approval. Before this moment, Evelyn had worked hard to give her father the impression that her life was up to his standards, to the point of even hiding her daughter’s sexual orientation by pretending that Joy’s girlfriend is just her ‘friend’.
In a sense, Evelyn’s father is the embodiment of Evelyn’s harshest and most fearful attitudes towards herself and the projection of those attitudes onto her daughter. But towards the end, Evelyn holds Joy’s hand and tells her father, “It’s okay if you can’t be proud of me, because I finally am. You may see in [Joy] all of your greatest fears squeezed into one person. I spent most of her childhood praying that she would not end up like me. But she turned out to be stubborn, aimless, a mess, just like her mother. But now I see it’s okay that she’s a mess. Because just like me, the universe gave her someone kind, patient, and forgiving to make up for all she lacks.” Evelyn then grabs Joy’s girlfriend, Becky, with her other hand, and continues, “Father, this is Becky. She is Joy’s girlfriend. Girlfriend.”
The kind, patient, and forgiving person in Evelyn’s own life is her husband Waymond, who teaches her a lot about love and acceptance throughout the movie. When she meets a version of Waymond in a universe where they are both successful and single, he tells her, “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.” This moment, I think, does a lot in helping Evelyn learn to accept herself in spite of her wasted potentials and accept her life in spite of its shortcomings. Just as with her love for Waymond and Joy, she comes to love her life not because it’s the best of all possible worlds. Rather than responding to the degree of valuable qualities in actual life, Evelyn’s love for her life constitutes an increased valuation of it. This is what people mean when they say that love is an action rather than an emotion. It’s not simply a response to valuable qualities, but an act of valuation.
It’s easy to understand, now, what ‘Alpha Waymond’ really means when he says to Evelyn, early on, “My dear Evelyn, I know you. With every passing moment, you fear you might have missed your chance to make something of your life. I’m here to tell you every rejection, every disappointment, has led you here to this moment. Don’t let anything distract you from it.”
Kyle York is a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Kyle has taught and studied in the U.S.A., China, Estonia, and Hong Kong. His writing has appeared in The Journal of Value Inquiry, Philosophy Now, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. In his free time, he tends to like going to movies, making electronic music, and playing video games.
Bibliography and Suggested Reading:
Jollimore, Troy (2011). Love’s Vision. Princeton University Press.
Kolodny, Niko. (2003). Love as Valuing a Relationship. The Philosophical Review, 112(2), 135–189. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3595532
Kreft, Nora (2022). “Irreplaceability and the Desire-Account of Love.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.
Velleman, David (1999) ‘Love as a Moral Emotion.’ Ethics.
Soble, Alan (1990). The Structure of Love. Yale University Press. Wolf, Susan (2012). “‘One Thought Too Many’: Love, Morality, and the Ordering of Commitment.” Luck, Value, and Commitme