Everything vs Nothing

There are many important questions in life: Is there any purpose to our existence? At the end of the day, who are we really? What would happen if you put everything on a bagel? In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the befuddled protagonist, Evelyn, couldn’t care less about abstract queries like these. In fact, she struggles to care about much at all while monitoring her aged father and running her family’s coin laundry business, which is currently being audited by a ruthless IRS agent. All of this changes when Evelyn’s husband pulls her aside and warns that she’s in grave danger. Mysteriously, this is not the husband she knows, but apparently one from another universe. Soon after, Evelyn begins seeing other versions of herself and is pulled into a plot to stop the end of existence, while also wrestling with themes of identity, hope, and meaning in an incredibly bizarre and surprisingly heartfelt adventure.

 

You… Who?
As our heroine learns that there are other versions of herself across countless alternate realities, she is led to question who she is and what anchors her identity. This soul-searching journey will probably sound familiar to most who have had conversations with young adults, many of whom are facing down modern culture’s obsession with self-definition. In today’s age, every identity imaginable is on the table for one to choose from.

This question of what makes you you is not new to humanity. Philosophers have been wrestling with this quandary since the dawn of civilization, and while their proposed conceptions of the self vary, as time has progressed each idea proposed has been more self-centered and relativistic than the last. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle saw one’s identity as fixed and objective, arguing that all people had unchanging souls which could be refined over a lifetime towards their telos or ultimate purpose. Hundreds of years later, René Descartes argued that no identity could be assumed as certain except the self (leading to his famous expression, “I think, therefore I am”). Frederick Nietzsche took this idea further, asserting that all concepts of the self were shaped by power. Consequently, those with enough power could dictate any “truth” (identity or anything else) to the world as they saw fit by dominating all those who disagreed. Seeing this struggle to assert one’s own truth coming in the wake of culture abandoning objectivity, Nietzsche also predicted that the coming twentieth century would be the bloodiest in human history—a prediction which unfortunately came true.

This leads us to today, where any limit on an individual’s “self definition” is seen as a severe societal taboo, as disagreements on this topic could lead to violence or self-harm. To the modern culture, any expression of sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other form of self-definition can and should be expressed, and any limitation on this expression is evil. As theologian Carl Trueman writes, “The intuitive moral structure of our modern ‘social imaginary’* prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life-denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence.”1 One might think that this complete freedom of self-expression would lead to unprecedented happiness, but so far in society today, this does not seem to be the case. Every option being equally valid at any point in life has left many people overwhelmed and depressed; a perspective which is explored through the antagonist of Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Nothing Really Matters
Evelyn spends much of the beginning of the film being warned that there is a great evil which is actively trying to destroy all that is good in every universe. When she is finally confronted by the individual leading this path towards annihilation she is shocked to find out that it is another version of her own daughter, Joy. This evil Joy explains that she has seen all versions of herself, the good, the bad, and the weird. She concludes that no one identity can matter, since in another universe that same person is completely different. If every identity is valid, she argues, then all of them are equally meaningless.

This strangely sci-fi tinged version of nihilism reflects the belief of some in our contemporary culture and can be seen in other works of entertainment as well. “Nobody belongs anywhere, nobody exists on purpose, everybody’s going to die.” These words are spoken in the hopes of being comforting in the sarcastic young-adult targeted show Rick and Morty. This sense of meaninglessness could arise from a belief in a so-called ‘multiverse,’ as shown in the film, but for most nihilists in the world today it originates in a rejection of the concepts of free will and objective morality. If choices and morals are nothing more than the rearrangement of chemicals in our heads firing at random, then the conclusion that there is no true meaning to anything is a fair deduction.This cynicism towards existence dominates society today, which is struggling more and more with depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

In the film, Joy talks about how we’re just one of millions of planets in an empty and pointless universe. Without a way to find meaning and purpose in life, she contends that “every future discovery will make us feel like an even smaller, even more worthless piece of garbage”.This bleak take on reality may seem quite intimidating to those who do not share that view, leaving us asking the question: how should we respond?

Hope vs Nihilism
We could easily arrive at the conclusion that those who think life has no value should be treated with the same cold indifference—or even hostility—that they show to the world. After all, worldviews like nihilism have the potential to be incredibly destructive, as history has shown. As Steven Garber says, “ideas have legs,” warning that there is “always a connection between worldviews and ways of life.”2 Thus, we might think the world would be a better place if we shut down these dangerous ideas and the people who hold them wherever possible.

This sort of fear-based logic can be cancerous when confronting others who see the world differently than we do. As Christians, we are asked to love those we disagree with (Matthew 5:44), knowing that gracious words are the most winsome to others (Proverbs 16:24). We can also tell them who they truly are: unique image-bearers of a holy God who loves them so much that he sent his Son to die for them. Through Christ’s death, we are made new creations with new identities as sons and daughters of the ultimate loving Father (2 Corinthians 5:17). This sense of fixed identity and appeal-through-love is also how the multiversal mom in this movie attempts to reach out to her daughter. “Stop calling me Evelyn” she says, “I am your mom and I love you.” The choice is then left with Joy whether to accept this fixed identity or to continue to embrace being without limitation and, consequently, without meaning or hope.

Ultimately, we also must leave this decision up to those we speak with, as there is no way to force anyone to choose Christ for themselves. As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “The Church does not impose but freely proposes [Christianity], well aware that conversion is the mysterious fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit.”3 The identity of a Christian isn’t multiple choice and it does come with some restrictions, but these limitations guide each of us towards a life far greater and freer than we could ever find by trying to be everything, everywhere, all at once.

*Please note: this movie contains strong language and lewd humor.

By Keegan Brittain

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