By: Kianna Mahony Summer Intern 23, HDS’ 24
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Although public awareness heightens this time of the year, preventative measures must instead be a lifelong endeavor. Movies are an easily accessible resource that can be drawn upon to address the current mental health crisis by showcasing stories which enliven individuals’ day-to-day lives.
2023’s Academy Award for Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All At Once draws attention to the crisis of meaning problem contributing to the mental health crisis. Clinical psychologist Dr. Bernadette Vötter defines the crisis of meaning problem as a growing existential state where people are “judg[ing] their lives as frustratingly empty and pointless.” The physical manifestation of despair is evident: the most recent U.S. statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify over 140 000 deaths from excessive alcohol use in 2019, 91 799 deaths from drug overdoses in 2020, and 48 183 deaths from suicide in 2021. Together, the CDC refers to these three causes of mortality as “deaths of despair”—and their rates are increasing.
The despair tightening its grip on society needs to be addressed by tackling the crisis of meaning problem. The movie Everything Everywhere All At Once confronts the crisis of meaning problem in two significant ways. Firstly, the movie provides an example of characters making peace with the crisis of meaning problem and, secondly, it invites viewers to reflect on their own engagement with spirituality and religion as a means of resisting despair.
In the film, Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American immigrant, experiences what her life could have been if she decided to stay in China instead of leaving for America. Evelyn’s despair is revealed in flashbacks of marital problems and fights with her daughter Joy, exacerbated by her mundane reality of doing laundry and taxes. Evelyn’s journey into the multiverse is filled with explorations on the nature of life and the universe in the infinite possibilities she can access, beyond her own earthly day-to-day activities. The more time that Evelyn spends in the multiverse, the more she realizes that if everything is possible then no underlying meaning of life and the universe exists. Though nihilistic, this deduction is an example of spiritual and religious engagement because Evelyn is thinking deeply about her place in life and the universe. But rather than succumbing to the despair that typically comes with nihilism, Evelyn chooses to “cherish these few specks of time” that make sense in a life and universe that decidedly do not make sense. By doing so, her struggles, triumphs, and transcendence of existential questions shift Evelyn’s mindset from despair to joy. Her mental growth was a result of her effort to make peace with her own crisis of meaning problem. Viewing Evelyn’s story gives the audience hope that despair is not inevitable.
Everything Everywhere All At Once also offers the audience a call to action through spiritual and religious engagement. The movie motivates introspection by encouraging viewers to consider how spirituality and religion are embedded in everyday life. Through the identification of spiritual and religious forms present in the movie, the audience can recognize that these forms may resist despair by animating individuals’ lives without necessarily being part of religious institutions.
From the beginning, a “lucky cat” figurine, derived from Japanese religious folklore, invites us into Evelyn’s world. Legends from the Edo Period (1603-1868) hold that the cat of a local abbot, Maneki Neko, saved a regional ruler from a lightning bolt. The ruler made Maneki Neko a patron of the empire, and people have been praying to lucky cat figurines for good fortune ever since. In Evelyn’s multiverse journey, the analogy between her mind and the leaking clay pot references wisdom from the Hindu Scripture Srimad Bhagavatam. This wisdom provides a visual example that persuades people to take care of their minds. Also representing Hinduism (and Buddhism), the ‘third eye’ placement on Evelyn’s forehead is a nod to another spiritual and religious form. The third eye is commonly associated with transcendence after much deliberation. Later in the film, spirituality and religion appear again when Evelyn is dragged into the eerie matte-white Bagel sanctuary wearing a Persepolis-inspired brown veil and chador typically worn by Muslim women. The rest of the characters in this scene appear in white clerical robes that look like Jewish kittels. The Bagel sanctuary represents one location where existential questions can be examined. Throughout the film, the dichotomous symbolism between the googly eyes and bagel is an homage to the Yin and–a philosophical concept closely associated with the spiritual and religious traditions of Taoism, Confucianism, and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. Looking at the movie with Yin and Yang in mind, the dark can be found in the light of the googly eyes, and the light can be found in the dark of the bagel. These examples attest to the animating ability of spirituality and religion. They attest to the ways that people have made and understood meaning in their lives, which is significant in resisting despair. These instantiations of origin stories, proverbial wisdom, transcendent sanctuaries, and beliefs demonstrate that spiritual and religious engagement in the daily life of an individual can be theistic, nontheistic, and everything-in-between.
By identifying spiritual and religious forms present in Everything Everywhere All At Once, viewers can recognize that spirituality and religion are “everywhere all at once” even if we are not looking for them. If opportunities for spiritual and religious engagement are everywhere, then so too are opportunities for resisting despair.
Ultimately, Everything Everywhere All At Once suggests that there is a correlation between a person’s degree of spiritual and religious engagement, by means of perusing existential questions, and their mental health. Arguably, more engagement with existential questions equates to better mental health, while less engagement implies the opposite. This National Suicide Prevention Month, individuals can begin to resist despair by utilizing movies to reflect upon their well-being.