September 2022 – Depression in “Everything Everywhere All At Once”
In this newsletter, I look at depression through the lens of this year’s movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once. In addition to Inside Out (see here for my review), it is a brilliant, and beautiful, depiction of not just depression, but depression and its resolution. I’ve been talking about it for months, and thought it was time to write it up here.
As I say in the article below, the film is not intended to be a complete map to the intricacies of the journey out of depression, but rather a meta-map for the whole arc of that journey, and its key factors. And amazingly—it’s an absurdist story of a harried woman and her taxes—it’s totally correct. So, before reading, if you haven’t, see the film, and consider seeing it again. It is very rich, and totally worth the time.
So, as the Waymonds say in the film, may these difficult times be met with heartfulness, good companions, wise guides, skillful conflict (as necessary), and more than anything, the willingness and resources to practice growth.
Depression in the film Everything Everywhere All At Once
(If you have not seen the film yet, best to pause now and watch. It’s a real gem. Plus, this article is spoiler-filled.)
This year’s film Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO) is not about depression per se; it’s about life, and features a metaphor and analysis of depression as an inevitable part of this life. More so, it is about what the experience of depression looks like, and how it is transcended. A film like Melancholia (2011) portrays depression as it is lived, but does not depict what is on the other side of it. EEAAO gives an absurdist, but real and accurate, depiction of life when it collapses into depression, and what then rescues us.
There are two joined dimensions of depression depicted in EEAAO: overwhelm and meaninglessness. In the modern context of an infinite information access that has broken down previously assumed frames of understanding (traditional religion, scientific certainty, egalitarianism), Evelyn the mother is on autopilot, in survival mode, and Joy the daughter is lost and close to giving up on mother as an anchor in the chaos. The multiverse that brings chaos into Evelyn’s life is a place that Joy is already living internally, and is pictured as her alter ego, Jobu Tupaki.
Although the story centers on Evelyn and her hero’s journey, it is really a story of a mother and daughter’s connection, of what happens when it is broken, the depression that settles in from that damage, and then its ultimate repair. As we see Evelyn begin to understand the power that exists in breaking out of her narrow assumptions about herself, in parallel we see the inner world of Joy depicted in Jobu. Joy—who we see in flashbacks as a playful, connected little girl—is shown through the arc of the story to have devolved into nihilism, and once she realizes that her mother, as her last hope for hope, cannot give her the meaning she needs to survive, is willing to surrender into self-destruction (the Everything Bagel, the bagel of nothingness).
Joy/Jobu is the depressive’s story. In the face of a life’s worth of disappointments, of goals and desires rendered (seemingly) pointless and futile, she shows that the first refuge is manic seeking, then nihilism, then resignation to the void of life, being a giving up on joy (connection, relationship, love). Jobu has seen all of the possibilities of the Multiverse, which means all of the possible life-stories, and in that realized that there is no one story (no one narrative or frame of meaning) that can, in itself, offer and sustain the meaning that is required to live. Not only has her particular story (of life, of herself) collapsed, the very trust in story itself has collapsed under the weight of an infinite number of stories existing side by side, without organization or rank. How can my story be meaningful when it is equally as true, and false, as the Universe to the right and to the left?
But what Joy/Jobu misses, and what the depressive misses as they descend down the hole of depression, is that the nihilism itself is another story. Nihilism (“nothing in this life has any ultimate meaning”) becomes the statement of existential truth, without realizing that if all stories are equally meaningless, then the nihilistic story that depression elevates to the truth, is itself completely empty. Joy/Jobu is almost destroyed by the Everything Bagel in the same way that depressives are (literally or emotionally) destroyed: by confusing the depression story with reality, by elevating it above all other stories.
In the process of transcending this trap, EEAAO uses the various iterations of Waymond to voice the solution. Essentially, he is the practitioner of kindness and relationship. While the Alpha Waymond is a warrior, he is ultimately not strong enough to hold off Jobu. However, Evelyn’s husband, and the CEO version of Waymond, express two forms of kindness, and faith in kindness as not a booby-prize for failed combat and living, but a more effective way of transforming (not merely fighting) the darkness of this existence. Their two monologues are the pivots of the movie’s analysis of depression and its resolution:
“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.” (CEO Waymond)
“The only thing I do know…is that we have to be kind. Please. Be kind…especially when we don’t know what’s going on.” (Waymond Wang)
What Joy/Jobu thinks is true is that all choice is determined by the story one lives in, and if all stories are meaningless, all choice is meaningless. What the Waymonds are saying is that kindness is a choice, undetermined by story or circumstance, which is essentially saying that faith—“seeing the good side of things”—is not determined by the object of faith, but is a radical choice. Even if we are confused and overwhelmed and disappointed, even seeing into genuine futility of our goals and assumptions, still we have the choice to orient to goodness. Which is the choice of love, and living out that love is what we call kindness.
Although much of modern life, and modern (especially medical) orientation towards depression and its healing is about rationality and finding the right buttons to push—actually, to heal from depression, a key medicine is faith and its lived expressions. Joy/Jobu loses track of this, and it takes the awakening of Evelyn to understand this, to understand how to deploy it in the world (the combat-of-love at the end of the film), and how to surrender one’s futile goals (of power, even of particular meaning/stories) in order to live in the world, in relationship with the simple stupid beautiful things and people around us.
There are two elements that demonstrate this denouement, this escape from the descent into nihilism. The first is Evelyn’s speech in the parking lot at the end of the film:
Evelyn: “…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…You’re just gonna 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….” [They embrace.]
Joy: “This is awkward…this is awkward, right? [Chuckling.] Do you still want to do your party?”
Evelyn: “We can do whatever we want. Nothing matters.”
This is the statement of the way out of depression, and the depressive trap of believing that depression’s story is the only reality. “Nothing matters,” instead of being a statement of reality, is a wisdom about our attachment to stories. When that attachment is seen through, it creates the space for choosing love and connection.
The second key moment is the scene back in the tax office, which shows the results of this completed journey out of depression. Sitting in the chair we initially saw her in, Evelyn now silently looks around her normal life and sees the extraordinary in the common elements of her family, the IRS agent, and the limitations of daily life. On her face we see openness, wonder, and love, not because a story has determined it, but because she realizes that she has a choice about how to relate to reality as it is, rather than as she thinks it is, or wants it to be.
EEAAO is not a roadmap to the day-to-day struggles and challenges of depression, but rather a macro-map to the whole arc of extraction from life lived close to the Bagel. For the depressed person, the details are important, and the journey that is shown in two hours on screen is the work of years in lived life. Nonetheless, the depressive needs to have a better map than the one depression gives—Joy/Jobu is what it looks like when or life-map is defined by depression—and EEAAO is one of the best there is.