If you were a writer and you watched The Matrix and Dr. Strange’s Multiverse of Madness after reading The Runaway Bunny to your child, the 2022 movie Everything Everywhere All at Once is what might happen.  It is, in the words of my husband, The Matrix on silly pills. I loved it.

I also watched it while reading The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival by archeologist Chris Begley which made for some interesting collisions in my brain because really, Everything Everywhere All at Once is about surviving an apocalypse.  Like The Matrix and Multiverse of Madness, it initially plays into tropes of The One who saves the world, but in the end like the Runaway Bunny and The Next Apocalypse, it reminds us that we survive collectively.

There will be spoilers, but I’m not sure that it’s a particularly twisty story that will be ruined if you get hints of how things go. To some degree it is expected, we’ve seen movies before and it’s too absurd for a tragic ending to work. There’s no Big Reveal, for all it’s silliness, it is a fairly straightforward heroine’s journey featuring Evelyn and her daughter Joy.  They go through separation, initiation, and integration and all the various stages within and faced with the final choice of how to deal with the meaningless and absurdity of everything, they choose kindness and each other.

What made me think about The Next Apocalylpse is how persistently Begley points to collective survival as a counterpoint to the trope of The One. He points to kindess. Hollywood has given us a particular expectation of what collapse or apocalypse looks like and The One who saves us all but Begley points out that isn’t what the historical record gives us. Systems might collapse, but communities survive. We think that we know what will be important to survival: having a stash of stuff and defending it against outsiders. Begley points out how absurd that really is.  How long will that hoard of stuff last? And as he points out, even if you are well armed and win 9 times out of 10 eventually you will lose. If somebody comes at you once a month, with those odds you won’t even last a year. But meeting newcomers with kindness: what do you have? what do you need? how can we work together?  That brings us to a much different world.  It is, if I might engage in some shameless self promotion, what might happen if we Become Kin.

Everything Everywhere All at Once reminds us that our choices have consequences for how our lives play out, even if those choices seem insignificant like swallowing a fly or using a butt plug, they can richochet us into a different world. And in the end, with all the universes before her, Evelyn chose to remain where she is. Which echoes something else in Begley’s book.

In addition to being Indian Jones with a scuba tank, Begley teaches wilderness survival classes and it was that context that a friend of his asked him where he would go when it all hits the fan. He said that he would stay right where he was, help out where help was needed. He would remain where he is.

Why do so many of our apocalypse scenarios assume that we need to leave? That we bug out and head for the hills? Won’t everyone be doing tihat? Won’t the hills get awfully crowded? I get that cities as they currently exist might be challenging in some ways. If the electrical grid collapses life in a skyscraper is going to be hard. But we can’t assume that the knowledge to get that grid back up and running in some capacity will be lost. There may be other strategies to help people survive urban spaces even if skyscrapers are no longer feasible.  In many ways, cities are very practical and so much of our urban/rural binary is racist and classist. We need to be careful how much of that we bring with us into the next world.

green mountains under white sky during daytime
Photo by Aamir on Unsplash

Part of the hero’s journey is the refusal of the call, and Evelyn initially does refuse Alpha (original universe) Waymond’s plea for her to confront the dark goddess, who is her daughter Joy. Joy had absorbed the knowledge of the entirety of the mulitverse and it overwhelmed her to the point that nothing mattered anymore. And really, when you look at the condition of everything happening everywhere all at once in our own world, it’s a completely understandable reaction. Maybe that’s why for so many of us our initial impulse is to bug out, head for the hills, and live somewhere isolated on our own. Build a compound for us, whoever us is.

When Evelyn refuses the call and insists that she doesn’t have the skills necessary to defeat the IRS let along a dark goddess, who is her own daughter, bent on destroying everything, Alpha Waymond tells her of all the Evelyns in all the universes, she is the greatest failure and therefore the one with the untapped potential to be victorious. And indeed, Evelyn learns how to bounce from one universe to another to get the necessary skills (she knows kung fu). Eventually she decides that instead of killing her daughter, she will go where Joy went. Like the mother in The Runaway Bunny, no matter where Joy goes, Evelyn will follow. She too becomes overwhelmed, but she has Waymond who reminds her to be kind. He says

“You think because I’m kind that I am naive. Maybe I am, it’s strategic and necessary. It’s now I fight.”

Jobu Tupaki (dark goddess Joy) has her everything bagel of despair (once you put everything on a bagel, what’s left? she says) and Waymond has his googly eyes that he puts on things around the laundromat to Evelyn’s chagrin. (I once put googly eyes on people’s pictures at work, when I put them on a friend’s picture of her pug you couldn’t even tell I’d done it). The bagel and the eyes become the symbols of different strategies of survival, different responses to trauma. Some people withdraw, others find joy and beauty in unexpected places.

Evelyn learns the things she needs to learn in order to transform her relationship with Joy, in order to save the world and return to the mundanity of everyday life. Begley also reminds us that while learning survival skills is certainly not a waste of time, when it comes down to it these things can be learned quickly by anyone. He learned them on the fly while studying as a graduate student and we who are ill prepared can learn them too. We who might be the greatest failures in our communities or families  have the as yet untapped potential to be part of a community. Because failure is relative isn’t it. It changes depending on what we prioritize, what we decide matters, where we draw the finish line.

girl writing on the ground using a spray an
Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Systems and structures fail. Communities survive. Whether we are watching The Matrix on silly pills or looking backwards at the collapses of various societies this is always true. Communities survive, and what is apocalyptic for some is not for others.  And collapse is rarely as fast as it happens in Hollywood. Rome took centuries to fall. For some a collapse of this society could be seen as an opportunity, a moment of possiblity in which we can build something new and more equitable. Which is why we are watching those who conquered the worlds they called new fight to reassert their authority. They are rolling back civil rights gains of the past 50 years as if saying they knew that allowing us in would cause chaos, and they are relying on the same violence to reassert their borders and boundaries as they used to establish them in the first place.

I suspect that in our broader society we are in The Ordeal phase of the hero’s journey, which includes an urgent desire to reconnect. And who we become depends on a lot on who we are, what we reconnect to. Evelyn needed to develop insight into herself. She needed to heal the rift between her and her daughter, the rift between her and her husband. We need to do those things too, to stop thinking in terms of us and not us and think in terms of all of us. You know that I don’t mean pretending that heirarchies don’t exist or that we can wish away wrongdoing. But we need to think about what we’re building and who we are including or excluding and why.

Near the end of the movie when Evelyn is facing Jobu Tupaki’s minions she uses her knowledge to find and heal their trauma, to give them happiness. We can do that too, listening beneath what people present us with. Notice what they have to offer instead of blaming them for being unprepared. See their untapped potential instead of their failures. We can see persistence and continuity in the histories of change instead of collapse and failure. We can find beauty and joy in unexpected places.

We can be kind.

Surviving Everything

Apocalypses happen everywhere, but not usually all at once