Evelyn Wang feels like she has achieved nothing.
Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is the main character in the award-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once, which won multiple awards at this year’s Oscars. Yeoh was awarded best actress for her role, while Ke Huy Quan, who plays Evelyn’s husband Waymond, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays their tax auditor Deirdre Beaudeirdre in the film, won best supporting actor and actress respectively. The film also scored best picture and best original screenplay, and its writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert took home the best director award.
The film opens with scenes of Evelyn’s current life, where she experiences the tedium of running a laundromat business. (Spoilers ahead.) As she visits other parallel universes in which she is a successful actress or a skilled teppanyaki chef, she begins to see her current life as the result of a series of bad decisions.
Evelyn soon comes to the devastating realization that she has not accomplished anything significant. Her marriage to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is on the rocks. Her relationship with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is, well, hardly joyful. Overall, her life seems to be a complete failure.
Where I identify most with Evelyn's identity struggle is in her role as a parent.
My husband and I are from Taiwan. We met and married while studying in Germany. After graduation, I left my career to support my husband's work, moving from country to country and city to city.
When I became a mother, I received a call from God to become a home-schooling mother. I enjoyed living with my husband around the world and savored every moment I spent with my children in homeschool.
I am thankful for God's blessings in my family and marriage. But occasionally, in the quiet of the night, I have wondered what my life would have been like if I was not married and if I had not become a mother. There are times when I miss experiencing the passion for the political ideals I held as a student.
Yet, I stand by my choice to give up my career and homeschool my children. As Evelyn’s life reminds me, choosing to serve others by achieving “nothing” in a world that pursues upward mobility requires a deep love and a God-given calling.
Reckoning with failure
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn and her family never have good conversations with one another. Waymond and Joy are both eager to talk to their respective wife and mother, but Evelyn constantly rejects them.
On the surface, it appears that Evelyn's life has become so busy that she does not have the time and energy to listen to them. But when I look deeper into Evelyn's situation, I find that rather than being too busy to talk to her family, it is more likely that Evelyn is using her busyness to escape her marital and parenting difficulties.
From the disappointed and hurt look in Joy’s eyes, which occurs repeatedly in the film, we discover that while Joy longs to share her struggles and gain acceptance from her mother, Evelyn uses her busy schedule as an excuse to shut Joy out. Joy only manages to receive superficial responses from Evelyn like: “You've put on weight recently. Watch your diet.”
As parents, we encounter times in which our children are like Joy. They hope that someone will listen to their struggles, point out their blind spots, and help them to discern what to hold on to or let go of. Unfortunately, our responses may often mirror Evelyn’s, even though we know that what our children need are parents who are willing to spend time with them, listen to them, give them clear guidance, discipline them, and accompany them through the mundanity of life day in and day out.
This is the kind of parent that Evelyn slowly grows to become as the film progresses. But for Evelyn to learn what it means to be a good mother to Joy, she must start by accepting who she is: A nobody.
“I've seen thousands of Evelyns, but never an Evelyn like you. You have so many goals you never finished, dreams you never followed. You're living your worst you,” says Waymond from the Alphaverse, a parallel universe.
“Most people only have a few significant alternate life paths so close to them. But you, here, you're capable of anything because you're so bad at everything,” Waymond continues.
In A Room of One’s Own, 20th-century feminist writer Virginia Woolf asks the question: If Shakespeare had a sister of equal talent, what would her fate be? Judith, the fictional sister that Woolf dreams up, is just as clever and talented as the celebrated bard is. However, one can imagine that as a woman in that age, her experiences are as different from Shakespeare’s as heaven is from earth.
When Judith flees to London to escape a proposed marriage that her father has arranged for her, she soon finds that no one believes in her or recognizes her talent. Finally, in the loneliness of having achieved nothing, the despairing Judith dies by suicide.
Perhaps this story merely reflects one woman’s plight in being unable to realize her potential. But failure is a common experience that all humanity faces. As Ecclesiastes 1:14 says: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
In a world corrupted by sin, no one lives without a nagging sense of futility. No one can escape the heartbreak it causes either. To a greater or lesser extent, all of us have caused or experienced hurt from others. We have continually hurt our loved ones in perpetuating vicious cycles of dysfunction. We have gone astray because of our own foolishness and ignorance.
As a parent, there are times I have felt like Evelyn in that I have achieved nothing of worth in life. Sometimes, there is a tendency to think that I am merely a broken, hopeless individual in whatever circumstance I happen to find myself in. It is here that I cling on to the hope I have in Jesus.
Searching for significance
Where and how do we find meaning in life as Christians? It may well happen when we give our lives up for another.
If a wildly successful professional forsakes the opportunity to achieve success and fame and chooses to put his or her children first instead; if a powerful executive insists on treating others kindly in a cruel dog-eat-dog environment because of his or her faith; if a professor invests more time with his or her students rather than producing research results; if a gifted preacher sets aside pulpit ministry to take care of an ailing spouse…. Their having achieved “nothing” in life is not due to a lack of ability, but because they have decided to relinquish their personal dreams and goals for the sake of another human being.
When we choose to live selflessly, we serve the physical and spiritual needs of those around us, rather than striving for worldly standards of success. This is the kind of life Jesus led, which is what Philippians 2:3–5 encourages us toward: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”
In a world where success is worshiped, being unsuccessful is often equated with being weak. However, walking the path of achieving “nothing” can be a powerful and meaningful choice.
In the movie, Evelyn becomes a “savior” precisely because she has accomplished nothing. As a daughter, wife, and mother, she is pulled in various directions by the different values and roles she occupies. In the end, she chooses to be her most ordinary self—an immigrant mother living in America who runs a laundromat—even if it means giving up on glitzier dreams and desires.
In parenting, there are many similar ideals that we may have to give up, even if others do not fully understand or appreciate these decisions.
When I chose to forgo my career after graduation due to family considerations, my father was very puzzled and felt that I had achieved nothing. When I chose to educate my three children at home, I was asked why I did not try to influence more people in the workplace and why I did not “fulfill my personal worth” in my profession and instead chose to spend my time, experience, and talents with my children day in and day out.
In The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility & the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen points out that our contemporary lives revolve around heightened competition and pressure. Whether intentionally or not, the world pushes us to move upwards and become “victors” in this cruel competition called life.
Nouwen, however, believes that true growth should not be driven by such “upward mobility.” Rather, authentic growth arises from serving others through Christ’s love, and the purpose of life is not to uplift oneself but to become a blessing.
Because of this insight, Nouwen set aside the “glory” of teaching at Harvard and Yale and entered the Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada, to become a priest and serve the mentally disabled in their daily needs. He set aside worldly acclaim and took up what many would have considered a career that achieves “nothing.”
Nouwen’s deliberate choice has offered the world a striking example of a life lived for the good of others. He has inspired people like me to choose a path that leads not to worldly achievement, but to follow Jesus’ example of humble self-sacrifice in serving others.
The “nothingness” of it all
Of course, when endless choices are available for us to pursue in life, it may sometimes be difficult to stay the course and remain faithful to what God has called us to be, whether it is a homeschool mom like me or a laundromat owner like Evelyn.
Part of the relief for these moments when we feel most disconnected from purpose and calling is grounding ourselves in human presence.
In a pivotal scene from the film, Evelyn’s father from the Alphaverse asks her to kill her daughter Joy to prevent Jobu from taking over her body in that universe. Evelyn refuses to obey her father’s instructions and decides to search for another way to save her daughter from total desolation.
Like Evelyn, we often find ourselves hoping to remove suffering from our children’s lives by our own strength. As Christians, however, we are aware that suffering is a part of life. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” says David in Psalm 23:4. God does not take away the valley in David’s life, but in God’s companionship, he is able to walk through the lowest of lows peacefully and safely.
Everything Everywhere All at Once also recognizes that suffering will continue to exist in life and that fellowship amid suffering is essential. At the end of the movie, after experiencing the dazzling adventures in all the parallel universes, Evelyn finally chooses to stay with Joy: “Of all the places I could be, I just want to be here with you.”
Evelyn’s choice to be Joy’s mother effectively means she has chosen to become “nothing.” Being a nobody is one of the most significant choices Evelyn makes. It reflects her unconditional love for Joy and the extraordinary depth of this love, which might seem inconsequential on the surface.
My choice to be a homeschool mother rests firmly on the unconditional love I have for my children. My day-to-day life may seem very unexciting and unimpressive compared to others, but God is with me, sees me, and loves me unconditionally even in my “nothingness.” I cling to this reminder in 1 John 3:1: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
Wang Min-li is a Taiwanese writer.
Trnaslation by Christine Emmert.
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