The latin root of the word “decide” means “to cut off.” What you do when you decide to do something is to literally cut off other options. When you decide to go out to eat at Chipotle, you are saying, “I am not going to eat at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, etc.” You make thousands of these decisions every day. Every book you read from your bookshelf means not reading all of the other ones. Working in one profession means not working in all the others. Possibility is laid out before us every single moment of our lives. We constantly take one path among the infinite. Have you ever stopped to wonder what your life could have been like if you had decided differently?
Nemo Nobody (Thomas Byrne, Toby Regbo and Jared Leto) stands on a train station (called Chance Station), deciding if he should go with his mother (Natasha Little) or stay with his father (Rhys Ifans). This decision is the core of the film; Mr. Nobody. It shows various possibilities and scenarios that derive from making this decision, all taking place within his imagination.
There are multiple lines of possibility that all branch out from the original decision at the train station. While it can be difficult at times to keep track of them, there are three women that are part of the different timelines. One is Anna (Laura Brumagne, Juno Temple and Diane Kruger). Anna is the choice permeated with passion. Notice the way that Van Dormael (the director) plays with color. With Anna, the color scheme is red, the color of passion. For Elise (Lea Thomus, Clare Stone and Sarah Polley), who suffers from bipolar and depression, it is blue. For Jean (Anais Van Belle, Audrey Giacomini and Linh-Dan Pham), who lives in the timeline of material wealth, it is yellow.
Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who lived from 1813 until 1855 and is considered to be the father of existentialism. He wrote prolifically and with great verve and spirit. But Kierkegaard was also a Lutheran, and was incredibly critical of what he called Christendom (the Danish Lutheran Church). In spite of this, most of his philosophy is still centered around his Christian faith. While he is a highly regarded theologian, much of his philosophy is able to be secularized. In fact, much of his philosophy happens before the leap into Christianity. Mr. Nobody examines the ideas that Kierkegaard wrote about only over a couple of pages, but which are the essence of the film, that of possibility, necessity, and the choices we make.
Kierkegaard often pulled two different concepts that seemed dialectically opposed to each other and showed how they were, in fact, both necessary. The self was a synthesis of different concepts. He writes, “Personhood is a synthesis of possibility and necessity. Its continued existence is like breathing (respiration), which is an inhaling and exhaling.” The self is only truly itself when it has both aspects, both possibility and necessity.
For Kierkegaard, when only one of possibility or necessity is present, the self is in despair:
“When a self becomes lost in possibility in this way, it is not merely because of a lack of energy; at least it is not to be interpreted in the usual way. What is missing is essentially the power to obey, to submit to the necessity in one’s life, to what may be called one’s limitations. Therefore, the tragedy is not that such a self did not amount to something in the world; no, the tragedy is that he did not become aware of himself, aware that the self he is is a very definite something and thus the necessary. Instead, he lost himself, because this self fantastically reflected itself in possibility. Even in seeing oneself in a mirror it is necessary to recognize oneself, for if one does not, one does not see oneself but only a human being. The mirror of possibility is no ordinary mirror; it must be used with extreme caution, for, in the highest sense, this mirror does not tell the truth. That a self appears to be such and such in the possibility of itself is only a half-truth, for in the possibility of itself the self is still far from or is only half of itself. Therefore, the question is how the necessity of this particular self defines it more specifically. Possibility is like a child’s invitation to a party; the child is willing at once, but the question now is whether the parents will give permission-and as it is with the parents, so it is with necessity.”
When one has possible futures ahead of them, it can seem so hopeful, so bright. Early on in our lives we all have that feeling, where the world is our oyster. It is ours to do with as we wish. Many of us live in our dreams of greatness, whether it be a major sports star, a musician, an actor, or a scientist who makes an essential discovery. Nemo says,
“If you mix the mashed potatoes and the sauce, you can’t separate them later. It’s forever. The smoke comes out of daddy’s cigarette, but it never goes back in. We cannot go back. That’s why it’s hard to choose. You have to make the right choice. As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.”
At a certain point, however, we lose ourselves in the dream. Kierkegaard writes,
“Thus possibility seems greater and greater to the self; more and more it becomes possible because nothing becomes actual. Eventually everything seems possible, but this is exactly the point at which the abyss swallows up the self. It takes time for each little possibility to become actuality. Eventually, however, the time that should be used for actuality grows shorter and shorter; everything becomes more and more momentary. Possibility becomes more and more intensive-but in the sense of possibility, not in the sense of actuality, for the intensive in the sense of actuality means to actualize some of what is possible. The instant something appears to be possible, a new possibility appears, and finally these phantasmagoria follow one another in such rapid succession that it seems as if everything were possible, and this is exactly the final moment, the point at which the individual himself becomes a mirage.”
If we spend all of our time in possibility, we lose the sense of reality that we live in, as a concrete human being. We forget to spend our time in the present moment. As Kierkegaard writes in beautiful and poetic style above, we also need to be able to obey the physical world, to know our limitations, our humanness, for to lose ourselves in a dream world of the possible is to lose half of ourselves:
“But if possibility outruns necessity so that the self runs away from itself in possibility, it has no necessity to which it is to return; this is possibility’s despair. This self becomes an abstract possibility; it flounders in possibility until exhausted but neither moves from the place where it is nor arrives anywhere, for necessity is literally that place; to become oneself is literally a movement in that place. To become is a movement away from that place, but to become oneself is a movement in that place.”
Necessity is the grounding we need upon which possibility can stand. Without necessity we become abstract clouds. That is to say, we become children flailing about wanting to go to the party. It’s possible, but we also need the ability to physically go. That ability to go is necessity.
Of course, we cannot live with only necessity. Kierkegaard writes, “The self of the determinist cannot breathe, for it is impossible to breathe necessity exclusively, because that would utterly suffocate a person’s self.” In the same way that a full self cannot only live in possibility, to live only in necessity is suffocating. It does not leave any hope for the individual. It leaves nothing to look forward to. Human beings are creatures eternally on the move.
We see this throughout the film. In one possible timeline, Nemo is married to Jean and has everything as far as material wealth, but he is in despair. This is because he lacks possibility. There is no openness in his life, no room for maneuvering. Everything is controlled tightly and rigidly, to the point where Nemo loses his desire for life. He attempts suicide by jumping in his pool. Jean finds a note that Nemo wrote, and reads it:
“There comes a time in life when everything seems narrow. Choices have been made, I can only continue on. I know myself like the back of my hand. I can predict my every reaction, everything is predictable. My life has been cast in cement with air bags and seat belts. I’ve controlled everything. I’ve done everything to reach this point, and now that I’m here, I’m fucking bored. The hardest thing is knowing whether I’m still alive.”
His life is so predictable and rigid, so controlled and planned out, that there is no hope in it for him anymore. There is no enjoyment, no spontaneity. He doesn’t feel alive anymore. Compare this with a short passage from Kierkegaard:
“To lack possibility means either that everything has become necessary for a person or that everything has become trivial.”
For Nemo, everything is trivial. It is dull and boring, predictable. Kierkegaard also writes,
“If losing oneself in possibility may be compared with a child’s utterance of vowel sounds, then lacking possibility would be the same as being dumb. The necessary is like pure consonants, but to express them there must be possibility. If this is lacking, if a human existence is brought to the point where it lacks possibility, then it is in despair and is in despair every moment it lacks possibility.”
Another character is also in despair over her lack of possibility. In another of the timelines, Nemo and Anna become step siblings when their parents meet each other. They find themselves falling in love, however, and have a passionate relationship. When their parents split up, they promise to find each other. They later find each other by chance, and while sitting on a bench in a park, Anna says,
“When we were separated at 15, I said I would never love anyone else. Ever. I would never become attached, I’d never stay put anywhere, I’d have nothing for myself. I just said I didn’t…I would pretend to be alive. And this is what I’ve been waiting for, all this time. Renouncing all possible lives, for one only, with you.”
Anna voluntarily denied all of her possible lives except for one: the life she wanted with Nemo. She says that she would pretend to be alive, because while she denies almost all of her possibility, she is in despair. She refuses both her possibility and necessity, denying the physical, grounded life before her in reality, as well as any other possible life she might have.
We should also talk about how this distinction between possibility and necessity contribute to anxiety. Kierkegaard wrote, “Anxiety is the dizziness from freedom.” This is a wonderful way of saying that with possibility comes uncertainty, an uncertainty about what choice is right. Which path should we take down the road of possibility to necessity?
When we have so many choices and possibilities in our lives, it can be terrifying. How do we know which choice is right? How do we know what to believe? How do we know who to marry? What career path to take? Where to live? The choices are infinite. As I have written before, this is a reason why many people simply refuse to think or act for themselves, but depend upon some kind of group to tell us how we should live. History has shown us that when we are in moments of great chaos and uncertainty, people gravitate towards authoritarian or cult-like movements, whether they are political or spiritual.
Amanda Montell is a linguist who writes books about language. Her latest, released in 2021, is called Cultish. She examines the language that cults use in order to catch our identities and manipulate us into pulling us in in order to take advantage of people. She further explains this phenomenon:
“Modern cultish groups also feel comforting in part because they help alleviate the anxious mayhem of living in a world that presents almost too many possibilities for who to be (or at least the illusion of such). I once had a therapist tell me that flexibility without structure isn’t flexibility at all; it’s just chaos. That’s how a lot of people’s live have been feeling. For most of America’s history, there were comparatively few directions a person’s career, hobbies, place of residence, romantic relationships, diet, aesthetic – everything – could easily go in. But the twenty-first century presents folks (those of some privilege, that is) with a Cheesecake Factory-size menu of decisions to make. The sheer quantity can be paralyzing, especially in an era of radical self-creation, when there’s such pressure to craft a strong ‘personal brand’ at the very same time that morale and basic survival feel more precarious for young people than they have in a long time. As our generational lore goes, millennials’ parents told them they could grow up to be whatever they wanted, but then that cereal aisle of endless ‘what ifs’ and ‘could bes’ turned out to be so crushing, all they wanted was a guru to tell them which to pick.”
Montell is writing poignantly about this historical moment, where everything is driving human life at warp speed. With issues like climate change, political partisanship and volatility, the financial crash of 2008, and a social media atmosphere that presents everyone with the possibility to become famous overnight for just the right video going viral, anxiety is high. With a multitude of decisions to be made, anxiety about succeeding and not being left out keeps rising. Alan Watts spoke about this eloquently. He said,
“You do not know where your decisions come from. They pop up like hiccups. And when you make a decision, people have a great deal of anxiety about making decisions. Did I think this over long enough? Did I take enough data into consideration? And if you think it through you find you never could take enough data in consideration. The data for a decision in any given situation is infinite! So what you do is, you go through the motions of thinking and what you will do about this. But worriers are people who think of all the variables beyond their control and what might happen. Choice is the act of hesitation that we make before making a decision. It is a mental wobbling. And so we are always in a dither of doubt as to whether we’re behaving the right way, doing the right thing, so on and so forth, and lack a certain kind of self confidence. And if you see you lack self confidence, you will make mistakes through sheer fumbling. If you do have self confidence you may carry get away with doing entirely the wrong thing.”
A worrier is someone who thinks about all of the possibilities that could come from a decision. It is someone who lives constantly in possibility and refuses to entertain necessity. This adds another dimension to the conversation, however, and that dimension is ethical. We have to make decisions, and sometimes those decisions will have ethical implications. In the film, all of the possibilities examined have the same moral import. They are all possible love stories, determining which woman Nemo will love. However, many other decisions have ethical dimensions which have moral ramifications in the real world. Will buying jeans made in foreign countries support the businesses and those jobs that allow those workers to build up their wealth and overcome poverty, thereby liberating them? Or does it prop up a system of injustice that takes advantage of people in poor countries-in essence, stealing their labor and making them worse off? It doesn’t take long to realize that many choices we make several times a day have these subtleties baked into them.
But this is a step beyond where Kierkegaard thought and wrote. He was thinking more about the literal decision right before your eyes. What should we do with our time tonight? What should I read? Who should I marry? These are all possibilities that must collapse into necessity, but still retain some possibility, otherwise we shall live in despair. “The person who gets lost in possibility soars high with the boldness of despair; he for whom everything became necessity overstrains himself in life and is crushed in despair…”
Anxiety is intrinsically linked to possibility and the need to make choices. So does Watts give us a remedy, a way to think about it that helps us act in the end? He does, and it is quite beautiful:
“You have to regard yourself as a cloud in the flesh. Because you see clouds never make mistakes. Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave? No they always do the right thing. But if you will treat yourself for a while as a cloud or wave, and realize that you can’t make a mistake, whatever you do, cause even if you do something that seems to be totally disastrous, it’ll all come out in the wash somehow or other. Then, through this capacity you will develop a kind of confidence, and through confidence you will be able to trust your own intuition. This is the middle way of knowing it has nothing to do with your decision to do this or not, whether you decide that you can’t make a mistake or whether you don’t decide it it’s true anyways, that you are like cloud and water. And through that realization, without overcompensating in the other direction, you will come to the point where you begin to be on good terms with your own being and be able to trust your own brain.”
Everything is going to happen in some way. When we make decisions, you have to be okay with the outcome, because if you’re not, then you will live in despair of the way you wanted reality to be. There is no way that reality is destined to turn out, no way that our lives are supposed to go. Fortune, destiny, any sense of pre-destination? It doesn’t exist. We tend to see events as destined after the fact, when, in actual fact, we would still have seen them that way even if they happened another way. At one point, a producer tells Nemo, “In life, you get one take. If it’s bad, you just deal with it.”
Watts is saying that whatever is going to happen, will happen. You have to learn to accept it. You have to be on good terms with yourself to meet reality where it is. There is no wrong decision. It’s similar to a conversation that the journalist has with Nemo when he is an old man:
“Journalist: Everything that you say is contradictory. You can’t have been in one place and another at the same time.
Nemo: You mean to say we have to make choices.
Journalist: Of all those lives, which one…which one is the right one?
Nemo: Each of these lives is the right one. Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else, and it would have just as much meaning.”
Near the end of the film, Nemo tells the journalist, “You don’t exist. Neither do I. We only live in the imagination of a 9 year old child. We are imagined by a 9 year old child faced with an impossible choice.” That impossible choice is whether to go with his mother or stay with his father. In a moment, he examined all the possible lives he could live depending on which choice he makes. How is he supposed to know which one is the right one? “Before, he was unable to make a choice because he didn’t know what would happen. Now that he knows what will happen, he’s unable to make a choice.” The entire film takes place in that moment of possibility. He says, “In chess, it’s called Zugzwang when the only viable move is not to move.”
Should he move or not? Should he decide or not? Time will move forwards no matter what he chooses, for isn’t not making a choice also a choice in itself? Nemo does not recall that to not decide means to not live. Sure, it includes moments of pain and indecision, recollections of what life could have been had he made a different choice, but what else is there to do? Stand on the platform for the rest of time? Then he has no actuality, no necessity, and he lives in despair. Isn’t it better to live, no matter how messy?
As Nemo says, “I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid I haven’t been alive enough! It should be written on every schoolroom blackboard. Life is a playground, or nothing.”