Mr. Nobody in Crisis

Michael Vu, c2022

I recently began actually enjoying movies again after a years-long hiatus. I feel like I’m going to risk exile for saying this, but the fact is that I have gotten into the unfortunate habit of paying for Netflix while not actually having time to use it. Lately, I’ve been “rescued” – you could say – thanks to YouTube’s algorithm recommending clips and analyses of older films to me while I’m seeking out OnlineMedEd videos.

One film I’ve since revisited is Mr. Nobody, a 2009 science fiction starring Jared Leto (the unfortunate black sheep of the modern Joker incarnations). If I were to mention the words “arthouse” and “European”, I’ll bet that it would turn you off immediately from the film. And that’s exactly how I felt, watching it 10 years ago. It just did not make any sense to 14-year-old me. Yet I think that the film bears an important message to us MacMed students in this particular time period.


Mr. Nobody, in true arthouse style, has multiple interpretations. But the one through which I view the film is simple and approachable I think. It centers on a single person in a single moment. It is about a 9-year-old boy named Nemo who must make the choice between leaving the train station with his mother or with his father, amidst his parents’ separation.

It is an impossible choice. Impossible because of the emotionality of choosing between two loving parents. Impossible because of the uncertainty of knowing the consequences of this decision, as well as the consequences of all of the decisions it opens up thereafter. If only we could predict all of these things, right?

Fortunately for Nemo, he is omniscient and able to run through all of the consequences of this choice and every subsequent choice. He is able to see his life in the full spectrum of its possibilities. He sees where he will work, who he will love, and even how he will die – variables that all change based on his choices. These possibilities are what make up the rest of the film.

Does knowing the outcomes make the choices easier? No. Knowing the outcomes is equally paralyzing because there is no “right” choice. Every permutation of choices gives rise to different combinations of failures and heartbreak, but each also has its share of beauty and triumph.


I reflect on this now because, for the past several weeks, I have continually questioned whether I am making the right choices. Amidst the pandemic, many of us know peers eager to be as close to the medical front lines as possible. Not a week goes by that I don’t see incredible work in the areas of production, research, consultation, and volunteerism thanks to the work of MacMed students.

Yet if I am to be candid, I feel that my contributions have been lacking. I suspect that there are some of you who have, at one time or another, felt the same way. Amidst the uncertainty of this pandemic, I have found myself torn between the prospect of continuing my previous activities like off-site research with the hope that the return to normalcy is just around the corner versus accepting the current situation as the new normal and going all-in to develop skills and resources to contribute. The uncertainty itself is paralyzing, and I feel that what I have lost is my sense of agency.


And so, we return to the 9-year-old Nemo, standing on the train tracks, torn between the choice of his mother or his father. He knows all of his futures (note the plurality), yet he still can’t decide.

How often do we all check and recheck the stats for COVID-19 cases? As if we could predict when it will be over. Or when we’re going to see each other again. Or when we’ll actually have a decent anatomy knowledge of MSK. The great tragedy here is that we’re even worse off than Nemo: we can’t know, and yet by trying, it only further paralyzes us with uncertainty.

I believe that the answer here is to make choices that restore our sense of agency. We should evaluate what we’re doing now until the end of this crisis. The fundamental question to ask ourselves is not about whether we’re contributing enough, or building a legacy, or doing as much as the next person. That can come later. Rather, the fundamental question to ask is: “Do I feel in control of my life?”

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