The increase in possibilities has not improved our odds of “success” as individuals, there are just so many more things that we could “fail” at while we attempt to “win” at everything we try to be. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
If you haven't seen the Oscar-nominated movie, Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, there are spoilers ahead. In the last 20-odd years, one of the big questions facing a teen, or a young adult, has gone from “what we could be” to “what ALL we could be”.
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If you’ve spent a few hours on Instagram, you may know the lure of wanting to be a climate conscious vegan traveller who’s itching to be a selfless entrepreneur, a food critic, a pop culture maven, an ace painter or photographer with a penchant for the latest in artificial intelligence, a bookworm with the sex appeal of a movie star and the faith of a priest, a rebel with or without a cause, a hustler who likes to boss and make a million bucks on a toss. All within the 24 hours, and the small set of skills, supplies and security that s/he can afford as a, say, 20-year old.
Michelle Yeoh’s (nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the movie) jaunts through the multiverse — as absurd as they might be for sci-fi lovers — could feel like looking at a friend’s posts from a gorgeous beach in Maldives and to be able to teleport yourself there at will. And from there, feel the FOMO (fear of missing out) looking at another post from Machu Picchu. Or kick yourself for not working out or researching on a stock.
Eventually, Yeoh’s character, the ever-stressed Evelyn Qwan, picks the reality that she was born into, and decides to fix her relationship with her daughter, and the rest of her life, in the here and now. Yeah, the good ol’ love saves a few souls one more time. It may have helped to see that one of the other versions of her had hot dogs for fingers.
The increase in possibilities has not improved our odds of “success” as individuals, there are just so many more things that we could “fail” at while we attempt to “win” at everything we try to be. The multiverse in the movie (Everything, Everywhere, All At Once) may be a reflection of these possibilities, while the all consuming fear of falling short can be seen in the bagel-shaped black hole (the internal void) that lures the eternal teen Jobu Tupaki who exists in all the universes, at once.
Essentially, even if you can do everything, and be everywhere, all at once, it doesn’t guarantee “happiness” or meaning. The early 20th century existentialists like Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre have already established that there is no inherent meaning or purpose to our lives. Hoping that a few selfies and travel videos will set the narrative of your life current is futile.
Freedom is great. So is individualism. Choices are amazing. But then something starts to go awry when we start to choose things based on what they say about us on social media. The constant need to display our stuff, our experiences, and our beliefs, has created a lack of empathy, if not pure disdain, for anything that isn’t “our” stuff, people, experiences, and beliefs. In the movie, the teenage lesbian’s devilish avatar emerges from her attempt, and her failure, to find acceptance at home.
In her pursuit of that meaning, purpose or just acceptance, Tupaki’s dull and dim-witted father Waymond Wang tells us that, “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."
A still from the Oscar nominated film Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. (Image: A24)
Just as it is fair to explore all the possibilities that you could achieve, it is important to bear in mind that just achieving one or two of those is more than enough for a lifetime. It is also important to realise that throughout history human beings have found meaning in their real world relationships too, whether it is with friends or family.
It hardly helps that the economy is increasingly evolving in a way to enable self validation and make isolation easier. Just a little over a decade into this transition, too many people are already lonely and broken.
The response has been more of the same stuff. For example, another app to find friends is just capitalism doing its thing. Causing a problem and selling a solution to the victim.
Entrepreneurs and policymakers need to ask if there are other ways to ensure that India’s demographic dividend is not spent on anti-depressants. There is no one solution to this that fits everyone. Some people may still find their peace even in the current system if it works for them. It is for those who constantly feel inadequate and alienated, to stop, think and try something else other than even-faster deliveries and shorter videos.
Whichever solution we pick as individuals and society, it's not easy because we are all dopamine addicts and no addiction is easy to overcome. Same day or ten-minute deliveries have only left us with more time to mope.
The tech industry will have us believe that the solution may lie in the metaverse and in more immersive virtual experiences. Metaverse is a great idea. It will provide a lot of avenues for a lot of things but not a solution to the problem discussed here.
It’s not entirely the fault of big tech or social media. It was just an overwhelming wave of technological revolution and people didn’t know how to deal with it. Of course, the businesses also have to ask what good is the time spent by people on their apps if it's slowly eating them alive.
There are enough people suffering silently because they think it's their fault they feel alienated, or that they have some mental health issue, not knowing that it takes a community to keep each individual alive and sane. People with shared interests, and differences, that one has physical access to in good times and bad. Real world interactions and more immersive phsyical relationships with friends and/or family, with its warts and all, is indispensable for human beings.
The hospitality industry can take the idea and reimagine the price of their food and drinks and the events folks can imagine something other than concerts whose tickets are prohibitively priced.
Does it sound something like the coffee shop in F.R.I.E.N.D.S or the bar at How I Met Your Mother? Maybe it will be that, maybe it will be a roadside tea stall or just an explosion of art along the streets. The point is that living in the virtual world, and living for it, is causing the ever-expanding void within us.
Of course, there are enough cafes and pubs already. But do we, especially the young people, have the money, time, public transport and safety to able to afford and access them. Don't we need better salaries, fewer working hours, and days if need be, better and predictable traffic, easily accessible public transport, and well-managed inflation, to name a few?
The meaning has to come from within us
At the level of the individual, the silence around suffering needs to end. Happiness is not a given. No one deserves it and no one has it all the time. The search for meaning is eternal and everyone needs to work for it. And, even after that, one needs to learn to encounter a few minutes of sadness/lull/shock every now and then.
The desperation for quick money, unlimited happiness, success, and whatever it is that floats your boat, only makes you more vulnerable. There will always be bad actors, grifters and scamsters. Indiscretion in pursuit of the quick bucks and "success" has always been visible in every generation. In this era, people are not losing just their hard-earned money by trying to ape self-proclaimed gurus of finance on social media. As a small investor who put her life's savings, you're not just left holding the bag, as the cliche goes, but what you're left with is also the feeling like a loser which will bear upon other aspects of your life, including your relationships.
If people can be less entitled (even emotionally), and our society can rise from this humourless pit full of political correctness, polarisation, and low EQ. Just because you can’t function alongside another flawed-but-broadly-decent human being, you can't replace them with a new playstation or a liberating haircut.
We need to learn to adjust and introspect instead of just blindly writing off individuals at the first sign of discomfort. Many of those who are on dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and many others often complain about this phenomenon.
In an era of exploding divorces, the simple-minded Wang tells his wife in the movie, “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.” This is not to say that all divorces, or even break-ups, are bad. It may help, at times, to remember that it is almost impossible for everyone to be at their best, at all times. It may not fair to expect that of our loved ones, friends and family.
Finding ecstasy in overcoming these unsavoury moments that may or may not have an external stimulus may provide a certain meaning to our lives. The human capacity to survive and adapt is far from over. As Evelyn Qwan, the protagonist in the movie, puts it, “You're not unlovable. There is always something to love. Even in a stupid, stupid universe where we have hot dogs for fingers, we get very good with our feet.” They play the piano with their toes in that universe. Told you, there will be spoilers.
(Edited by : CH Unnikrishnan)
First Published: Mar 4, 2023 7:00 PM IST
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