SPOILER WARNING: I will be talking extensively about Everything Everywhere All At Once in this article. I recommend against reading further if you have yet to see the movie.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a fast-paced movie that strikes me as having absurdism themes and also often being absurd in itself. It is broken into three parts: Everything, Everywhere, and All At Once. The film starts with themes that are dark, heavy, and painful. The featured themes become lighter, loving, and empowered as it progresses.
I will start by talking about Dr. Seuss.
In part 2 of the movie (i.e. Everywhere), Joy hands Evelyn a book called Everything Everywhere All At Once. This book reminded me of Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. However, whereas the cover of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! features a person standing on an elevated platform, the cover of Everything Everywhere All At Once features a person being sucked down into a bagel.
And the similarities don’t stop there. Many themes are shared between Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and Everything Everywhere All At Once.
In Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss writes, “I’m afraid that some times / you’ll play lonely games too. / Games you can’t win / ’cause you’ll play against you.”
This idea of loneliness takes many forms in Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Perhaps the most obvious is the role of intergenerational trauma in the movie.
Early on in the movie, Evelyn has a flashback to her birth. One of her first experiences being alive is a doctor telling her father, “I’m sorry. It’s a girl.” So she’s already a disappointment early on in her existence. This starts the feeling of disconnection between her and Gong Gong.
This disconnection is then perpetuated in Evelyn’s relationship with her daughter. Just as Evelyn spends her entire life trying to make her father proud so she may finally feel a sense of connection with him, Joy spends most of the movie (lifetimes across many universes) seeking a relationship with her mother. Regarding the relationship she longs for, Joy says, “I was just looking for someone who could see what I see. Feel what I feel.”
In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown says, “Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. Here’s the definition of shame that emerged from my research: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”
Shame plays a predominant role throughout Everything Everywhere All At Once.
There are numerous scenes where Joy feels shame about her experiences with her mother.
Early in the movie, Joy tries to introduce her girlfriend to Gong Gong. She says, “Becky is my… Shit, how do you say it? She is my…” Evelyn interrupts her and says, “Good friend. Becky is a very good friend.” Here, Joy may feel shame about being gay.
Shortly after, as Joy is leaving the laundromat, Evelyn rushes after her and says, “Joy, wait, please. I have something to say to you.” Joy asks, “What?” Evelyn pauses and then responds, “You… You have to try and eat healthier. You are getting fat.” Here, Joy may feel shame about her weight.
And then in the IRS building, when Joy arrives in the elevator with a pig on a leash, Evelyn asks, “Why do you look so stupid?” Here, Joy may feel shame about the way she dresses.
But shame isn’t limited to the relationship between Evelyn and Joy. Evelyn experiences her own shame throughout the movie as well.
One example of this is when Evelyn, Waymond, and Gong Gong first sit down with Deirdre at the IRS. At one point, Waymond tries to address Deirdre’s concerns by saying, “Sorry, my wife confuses her hobbies for businesses. An honest mistake.”
Immediately after hearing this, you can see Evelyn lower her head and look down in what looks like an experience of shame. And as expected, she gets defensive in response. She claims that Deirdre is always trying to confuse them with big words, and then yells at Deirdre claiming that they will bring Joy to their future meetings.
It seems like a common response to respond to experiences of shame by trying to shame others.
(In fact, I think this is what is happening in the “You are getting fat” scene between Evelyn and Joy. I suspect that when Joy turns around and asks, “What?,” Evelyn experiences a feeling of shame about her relationship with Joy and thus fires back with her fat comment instead of inviting her and Becky to the New Year’s Eve party.)
Shame is a very painful emotion. This is what motivates Joy to create the bagel:
Joy: ‘Cause you see, when you really put everything on a bagel, it becomes this.
Waymond: Come on. Run, Evelyn.
Joy: The truth.
Evelyn: What is the truth?
Joy: Nothing matters.
Evelyn: No, Joy. You don’t believe that.
Joy: Feels nice, doesn’t it? If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life, it goes away.
Now, the bagel has a cult following. What do all these people seem to have in common?
Just as a bagel has a hole in the middle, the bagel versions of people in the movie seem to think they’re incomplete too. Bagel Joy (i.e. Jobu Tupaki) thinks she’s incomplete without her mother. Bagel Deirdre thinks she’s unloveable. Bagel Chad believes that he’s useless.
Joy says, “I got bored one day, and I put everything on a bagel. Everything. All my hopes and dreams, my old report cards, […]” And, understandably, someone could feel shame with the weight of all those (internal and external) unmet expectations.
In seeing Joy as Jobu Tupaki, Evelyn says, “No, I’m not like you. You’re young, and your mind is always changing. I still know who I am.” When Evelyn says that she still knows who she is, it makes me think that she’s implying that Joy has lost (part of) herself–that Joy may be broken. But as Joy responded, “I am your daughter. Your daughter is me. Every version of Joy is Jobu Tupaki. You can’t separate us.”
Now, for most of the movie, we see Joy spending her time doing one thing: looking for Evelyn. As she puts it, “I’ve been trapped like this for so long… experiencing everything… I was hoping you would see something I didn’t… that you would convince me there was another way.” She spends all her time waiting for Evelyn to show her something different.
In Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, there is a similar section about The Waiting Place. Dr. Seuss writes, “[…] a most useless place. / The Waiting Place… / […] / Waiting for the fish to bite / or waiting for wind to fly a kite / or waiting around for Friday night / or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake / or a pot to boil, or a Better Break / or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants / or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. / Everyone is just waiting.”
Notice that when Joy is stuck in The Waiting Place, she isn’t being present. Instead, she’s spending all her time in other universes, hoping it will lead to a different outcome.
She tells Evelyn, “Not a single moment will go by without every other universe screaming for your attention. Never fully there. Just a lifetime of fractured moments, contradictions, and confusion. With only a few specks of time where anything actually makes any sense.”
As Waymond explained to Evelyn when she first learns about verse jumping, every decision one makes branches off into multiple universes.
Sometimes we decide and then find out that we don’t get the outcome we were trying to get. We can get depressed if we think too much about that alternate universe–screaming for our attention–where we made a different choice that got us a better outcome.
Sometimes we decide (or know that we’re going to have to make a decision) but don’t know whether we will get the outcome we were trying to get. We can get anxious if we think too much about that alternate universe–screaming for our attention–where there may have been a different decision that would have brought us a better outcome.
As a result, our mind is continuously pulled away from the present. We’re drawn towards those other universes of past and future. This results in suffering.
To this, Waymond tells Evelyn, “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.”
Not only is it painful to not live in the present, but it is also incredibly disempowering because you’re focused on what could have been rather than what you can do right now. (At least, it is disempowering for Evelyn before she has access to everything everywhere all at once.)
Joy also speaks to the painfulness of this. She says, “But you see how everything we do gets washed away in a sea of every other possibility.”
No matter how much we accomplish or how successful we are, we always seem overwhelmed by something else.
Those other universes where we didn’t fail? They scream for our attention.
Those other universes where we didn’t experience so much pain? They scream for our attention.
Those other universes where we were more efficient and saved more of our valuable time? They scream for our attention.
With all those other universes constantly screaming for our attention, we forget the present and instead focus on the painful screams.
One other thing that results in suffering is attachment.
Joy: For most of our history, we knew the Earth was the center of the universe. We killed and tortured people for saying otherwise. That is, until we discovered that the Earth is actually revolving around the Sun, which is just one sun out of trillions of suns. And now look at us, trying to deal with the fact that all of that exists inside of universe out of who knows how many. Every new discovery is just a reminder–
Evelyn: We’re all small & stupid.
Joy: And who knows what great new discovery is coming next… to make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit.
When we become attached to an idea, a thought, a form of understanding, we can set ourselves up to feel like even smaller pieces of shit. In this scene with the rocks, Joy points out this can happen when that attachment is severed–when we learn that idea/thought/understanding wasn’t, in fact, accurate.
In addition to The Waiting Place, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! talks about the idea of a Lurch. Dr. Seuss writes, “I’m sorry to say so / but, sadly, it’s true / that Bang-ups / and Hang-ups / can happen to you. / You can get all hung up / in a prickle-ly perch. / And your gang will fly on. / You’ll be left in a Lurch.”
One of the most moving parts of the movie for me was a scene that illustrated the idea of being left in a Lurch:
Joy: Mom… Just… Just stop. Good for you. You’re figuring your shit out. And that’s great. I’m really, really happy for you. But I’m… I’m tired. I don’t want to hurt anymore, and for some reason when I’m with you, it just… It just hurts the both of us. So, let’s just go our separate ways, okay? Just let me go.
Both internal and external things can leave us in a Lurch.
One example of an internal source is in the rock scene I recently quoted.
We commonly assume that our thoughts are true–that our thoughts are facts about the universe. We see many examples of these throughout the movie:
- My father isn’t proud of me.
- I’m unloveable.
- I’m useless alone.
- I’m not connected to my mother.
But thoughts do not have a property of truthiness. Sometimes they may correspond to things in the universe that are true. But the thought itself is not true. It’s just a thought.
Sometimes thoughts are helpful, but sometimes they leave us feeling hung up on something. When this happens, they often aren’t helpful.
(Random aside because I felt it was fitting here.)
The Work by Byron Katie provides four questions to help explore the nature of our thoughts:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
Here is one example of an external source that can leave us in a Lurch:
Joy: Is it that I can’t be here, or that I’m not allowed to be here?
Evelyn: Hey! You show them some respect!
Officer: Hands where I can see them.
Joy: See, I can physically be here. But what you meant to say is you’re not allowing me to be here.
Sometimes an authority figure may tell us that we can’t do something. In this scene, the authority figure is a police officer. However, authority figures can also be parents (e.g. Gong Gong), spouses (e.g. Evelyn), IRS agents (e.g. Deirdre), employers (e.g. chef Evelyn’s boss), etc.
When these authority figures tell us that we can’t do something, it’s often inaccurate and disempowering. While our actions may have consequences if we make those choices, those choices remain ours.
You can see this play out in this scene with Joy and the police officer. The police officer tells Joy that she can’t be in the area (or the consequence is that she’ll be arrested). Joy still chooses to stay there, and as a result, the consequence is that he arrests her.
Feeling disempowered is one of the things that can leave people feeling hung up and in a Lurch. It can prevent us from seeing possibilities to keep moving and make us feel confused about how we can move forward.
Another similarity I saw with Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is the idea of a journey. Dr. Seuss writes, “So… / be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray / or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea, / you’re off to Great Places! / Today is your day! / Your mountain is waiting. / So… get on your way!“
The way I read this is that each of us has our journey with successes and positive emotions (i.e. Great Places) and failures and negative emotions (i.e. your mountain).
In a recent podcast with Greg Nyman, Brooke Castillo says, “The hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life is feel your feelings.”
As Joy mentioned, the pain and guilt she experiences can be overwhelming. She says, “Do you know why I actually built the bagel? It wasn’t to destroy everything. It was to destroy myself. I wanted to see if I went in, could I finally escape?”
So just as I use food (i.e. boxes of cookies) to avoid listening to my emotions, Joy uses food (i.e. the everything bagel) to avoid listening to her emotions.
At the movie’s beginning, Evelyn uses work (i.e. laundry, taxes, making breakfast for Gong Gong) to avoid listening to her emotions.
However, by the movie’s end, Evelyn changes her relationship with her emotions. I’ll speak more about this later.
So now, let’s jump to a prominent theme in the movie.
Nihilism is at the forefront when Joy introduces Evelyn to the truth: nothing matters.
This perspective allows Joy some relief from the pain and guilt she experiences. It also leads her to a path of destruction as she kills many people in many universes as she searches for Evelyn. Evelyn also walks a destructive path after Joy helps her see the truth–Evelyn signs her divorce papers with Waymond, stabs Waymond, and smashes a laundromat window with a baseball bat.
However, whereas Joy gets stuck in nihilism, Evelyn finds a way to transcend it.
There is a scene in the movie where Evelyn remembers a bunch of her experiences with Waymond. A moment where their hands touch. A moment where she sees Waymond looking at the television. A moment where Waymond finds the remote.
She remembers all of these meaningless moments. But then she starts to see that these same meaningless moments were meaningful to her. These same meaningless moments generated her feelings of love for and joy with Waymond.
Then the scene jumps to the movie-universe Waymond. He says, “So, even though you have broken my heart yet again, I wanted to say… In another life, I would have really liked… just doing laundry… and taxes with you.”
Even though doing laundry and taxes is meaningless, Waymond would have chosen that universe. Because even though doing laundry and taxes is meaningless, they could be meaningful to Waymond because that’s how he would get to spend his life with Evelyn.
When Evelyn sees that, even though everything is meaningless, she can create her own meaning, she ends her destructive actions and hugs Waymond.
This is when Evelyn transcends nihilism and realizes existentialism.
In Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss writes, “You can steer yourself / any direction you choose.”
This is what Evelyn sees. The googly eyes are meaningless. She can choose to see them as meaningless. Or she can steer herself in a direction where she thinks of the googly eyes as being stupid. Or she can steer herself in a direction where she considers the googly eyes as Waymond injecting fun into their life of laundry and taxes.
Waymond alludes to this power earlier in the movie when he says, “You underestimate how the smallest decisions can compound into significant differences over a lifetime.” I like to think of this as the Law of Attraction at work.
It is a small decision to see the googly eyes as “stupid.” But that decision has massive downstream effects, such as Evelyn losing her joy and Waymond serving her divorce papers.
Evelyn foreshadows this conclusion by saying, “I can think of whatever nonsense I want and somewhere… …and somewhere out there, it exists. It’s real.”
(Waymond is remarkable in his own way. He reaches a similar existentialist conclusion. He describes this as he says, “When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything.” This is how he continues to love Evelyn through a life of laundry, taxes, and her not having time to talk to him anymore.)
This role of the Law of Attraction may produce some existential angst for people because it spotlights our role in our results. As Landmark puts it, we can be in a vicious circle when we allow our thoughts to roam unchecked.
Evelyn mourns this when she says, “Another year, hmm. Pretending we know what we’re doing but really, we’re just going around in circles.” Despite her hating it, she thought that she would produce different results by doing laundry and taxes every year. She thought that she would have a happy family. She thought that she would have a successful business. She felt that she would be pleased with how her father perceived her. But every year was the same thing.
And like a vicious circle, our results always support the thoughts that generate them.
That isn’t to say that existentialism is a destination–it is a journey with challenges along the way.
In Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss writes, “Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? / How much can you lose? How much can you win? / And IF you go in, should you turn left or right… / or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? / Or go around back and sneak in from behind? / Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, / for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.”
This reminds me of the paradox of choice. Yes, it is potent to realize that you can create meaning. At the same time, it can feel very confusing when you have every other universe screaming for your attention.
For instance, when Evelyn first verse jumps, Deirdre says to her, “Mrs. Wang. Hello? Look, I’m sure you have a lot on your mind, but I cannot imagine anything mattering more than the conversation we are now having concerning your tax liability.”
At the same time, in another universe, Waymond says to her, “I know you have a lot of things on your mind, but nothing could possibly matter more than this conversation we are having right now concerning the fate of every single world of our infinite multiverse.”
These situations may result in some form of analysis paralysis.
However, as Dr. Seuss says in Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, “Out there things can happen / and frequently do / to people as brainy / and footsy as you. / And when things start to happen, / don’t worry. Don’t stew. / Just go right along. / You’ll start happening too.”
We don’t need to fixate on making the perfect choice. We can’t escape failures. We can’t escape uncomfortable emotions. Life constantly presents us with ups and downs.
If you recall earlier, when I mentioned that Evelyn changed her relationship with her emotions, this is an example:
Evelyn: Wait. You are getting fat. And you never call me even though we have a family plan.
Evelyn: 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… 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’ll 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: So, what? You’re just going to ignore everything else? You could be anything, anywhere. Why not go somewhere where your… 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 chose the present. Even though she doesn’t always feel connected with her daughter… Even though she feels angry… Even though she has all these reasons to escape the present… Evelyn chooses to embrace the good and bad of life. This allows her to be fully present and genuinely lean into her power.
So, although this movie brought us on a journey full of shame, emptiness, loneliness, disconnection, pain, guilt, trauma, and the absurd… I ultimately think this movie is intende,d to be an empowering one.
As Evelyn puts it, “We can do whatever we want. Nothing matters.”