Finding Meaning with Alice

Last weekend, I saw Alice Through the Looking Glass. I hadn’t seen the first remake, but I’ve seen the original, so it didn’t matter. The movie was incredibly creative and well done, and I give it two thumbs up.

Spoilers ahead (!):

The main theme of the movie is “You cannot change the past, but you might learn something from it.” Alice seeks to help the Mad Hatter, who is mourning the loss of his family, while also believing there is a chance they are still alive. Alice attempts to get him to (radically) accept that they are gone, but when his grief does not lift, she sets out to travel back in time and prevent their deaths from happening in the first place.

Once she begins her voyage, she quickly remembers that another significant event contributed to the death of The Hatter’s family. Prior to their disappearance, Iracebeth (the Red Queen) had promised revenge following the Hatter’s family publicly mocking her for her swollen head. If only her head hadn’t been swollen, Alice thinks, my friend’s family wouldn’t have been killed in the past, and all will be well in the present. Alice travels even further back in time to the scene of the tragic accident in which Iracebeth hit her head, leading to it becoming literally (and figuratively) permanently swollen. Alice successfully runs interference so Iracebeth can dodge the object that leads to her injury. Iracebeth, however, then slips and knocks her head into a fountain, leading to instant swelling and permanent damage – the exact outcome Alice was hoping to prevent.

It is in this moment that Alice realizes that she cannot change the past, as hard as she may try. Still determined to help her friend, she seeks to find more information about events that have already occurred. Rather than preventing these events, she studies them, and gains new insights, clarifies misinterpretations, and ultimately, helps the Hatter find peace.

In real life, we obviously cannot travel back in time and have as close a look into past events as Alice did … though her chronosphere ship would be pretty fun to navigate. What we can do is reflect on past events and, once we aren’t in the heat of the moment (aka DBT’s “emotion mind”), look back on what we may have missed the first time around. One DBT skill I have always loved to teach is “Meaning Making,” which comes from the IMPROVE skill for distress tolerance. This skill is all about finding the significance behind something distressing, rather than trying to change what has already happened. Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with the expression “Everything happens for a reason,” as this can feel invalidating in some situations … I instead like to think that there is meaning in everything that happens, albeit sometimes hidden at first.

End spoilers.

Let’s try looking at things dialectically: Perhaps your eating disorder put you through hell, and showed you how deeply your family and friends care for you. Sure, given the chance to relive life without the ED, you might take it … but since life doesn’t work that way, perhaps you can now reflect on how strong your relationships became through your illness. Maybe since recovering, you’ve become passionate about spreading awareness about mental health and helping increase access to care.

Perhaps the loss of your family member led to a deep depression, and allowed you to recognize your own strength and pour yourself into new activities. Again, you’d do anything to get that person back, but since you cannot, you instead learn from your tragedy … perhaps the loss affects the way you engage in relationships moving forward. One day, you may be able to help someone coping with their own loss in a way you couldn’t have otherwise.

It isn’t always easy. Perhaps you cannot seem to find the meaning behind something, but instead, reflecting on the past can highlight the ways in which you’ve grown and changed, ways that others had cared (and still care) so deeply for you, or in some cases, ways you can make sense of the behavior of others.

Perhaps someone treated you so poorly because they were struggling with their own problems at the time. Their unkind words and actions may have been more about them than about you.

Perhaps you treated someone with disrespect because you were struggling with your own problems. Perhaps looking back, your behavior was a cry for help.

Finding the meaning may not justify what happened, but it may help you make peace. Sometimes when you look closely enough, you can see something you hadn’t seen before.

All of this being said, learning from hardship can at times seem impossible, especially in light of the current tragedies sweeping the nation: The Stanford rape case, and the subsequent verdict. The abhorrent massacre at an Orlando LGBTQ nightclub leaving 49 innocent people dead. There is no way to make sense of the nonsensical. Sometimes you can examine and dissect the evidence until you’re blue in the face, and still find yourself confused, scared, and feeling helpless.

These are the moments when, perhaps, you hug the people close to you extra tightly. Perhaps you start living like it is your last day, truly Living the Fourth (for any Jesuit-school grads who know the significance behind this). Perhaps you pour yourself into advocating for those who cannot. Learn something from the good, the bad, and the in-between, and find your meaning.