This post contains major spoilers for the film Arrival. Please don’t read if you plan to see the movie.
I hadn’t planned on watching Arrival, but recently Shaun King asked the followers on his email list to watch the film, so one night after the baby went to bed, my husband and I put on an Arrival screener.
As the movie came to a close, I was sobbing uncontrollably and cried for hours afterwards. To be fair, it had been a bad week. The Orange Despicable One has made every morning a mystery—what good will he dismantle today? Usually, I wake up in the middle of the night, panicked, hoping this is all just a nightmare. In my most hopeless moments, I am angry at myself for bringing a child into this world. I feel useless. These small actions I take, calling, emailing, writing letters, what difference really do they make? I am potty training my daughter and I know that sounds trivial but potty training has brought me to my knees. I am powerless over everything, especially the bowel functions of this unbearably cute two year old. And I am sending out one novel, an old one I wrote years ago with a lot of baggage attached to it, and starting a new novel. I tell myself all my writing is pointless, an exercise in ego. I am anxious. I am full of doubt. I lack hope.
Shaun King, in his email, writes, “The characters in the movie are faced with a complicated problem. I want you to witness some of the levels of teamwork that it took to solve them. I want you to see the collaborative nature of their problem solving. I even want you see how they used technology to communicate with one another. One more thing – I want you to notice something very, very particular that it took to solve the problem. I don’t want to blow it for you, but it’s an essential skill.
We need that skill/gift.”
In Arrival, twelve alien ships hover over twelve different parts of the world and the representatives (mostly military and scientists) of each country have to work together to figure out what the aliens want. Uncertainty, doubt, and mistrust run rampant. For some countries, the instinct is to assume the worst of the aliens and respond with aggression. But Dr. Baker, a linguist played by Amy Adams, trusts the aliens. In order to successfully translate the alien language, people had to trust one another and defy direct orders from the government. Dr. Baker’s partner, Ian Donnelly, a scientist played by Jeremy Renner, had to use his body to shield Dr. Baker and buy her time to get the information she needed. They had to take off their protective suits in order to fully communicate with the aliens. They had to make themselves vulnerable and trust that the intentions of the aliens were good.
When my daughter grabs a toy from another child and runs away, I tell her to look at the face of her crying and upset friend. I say, you have made your friend cry. Do you see? She is very sad. You made her sad. What can you do to fix this? Usually she will return the toy. If a friend is crying at school, she goes over and gives them a hug. She says hello to strangers. She tries to kiss the boo-boos of passing children in the street. Though I have tried to instill empathy, I worry for her. Success and power are bred into people—they are taught to trample over one another to get to the top. How should a human be? We are the center of our worlds. Many of us think only of ourselves and trust no one else, and for some that is the only way to survive. But the only way for me to survive is to believe that we are capable of overcoming our cruelty and selfishness. I must have faith and hope in the fight for empathy because if I don’t, I lose the will to live.
A major tenet of Arrival is that as a being learns a new language, their brain irreversibly changes, and their experience of the world changes as well. As Dr. Baker learns the language of the aliens, her experience of time changes. She is able to see flashes of her future, but as a movie watcher we think they are of her past. Initially, we think she had a young daughter and the daughter died. But we come to learn the flashes are of her future grief. Dr. Baker will get married. She will have a daughter. Her husband will leave her. Her daughter will die when she is a teenager. But still, we see her respond with love to the man she knows will abandon her and her daughter. She knows what grief lies ahead but she also knows the love that lies ahead. The moments of peace and happiness and wonder and joy. She knows what comes between the present moment and her future debilitating sadness.
I don’t know what the essential skill is to which Shaun King refers. Is it having faith others will do the right thing and fight along with you? Using your body as a shield? Magically knowing how to disarm the most dangerous among us to convince them to treat the aliens with respect? Is it the message to say what you really feel more often? To not shut down communication—ever? To learn a new language? In learning a new language, a rewiring of our brains? To see the bigger picture? To see the value of joy in the face of grief? To give yourself to a larger cause? To keep trying to understand, and to love, and to give, over and over?
Knowing what disappointments are to come, but living through it anyway?
I knew this at thirteen years old, when I tried to commit suicide. I knew the world was cruel. I knew the cruelty would be relentless. I knew others all throughout the world had it much worse than I did and I could not make sense of that in my mind. I knew I’d fall in love and then lose that love. I knew the people I loved most would die. I knew time would just slip through my fingers and I’d never be able to grasp any of it. I knew life was a cycle of joy and pain and I didn’t feel strong enough to weather it.
My therapist recently told me there are different kinds of people. Those for whom anger is turned into action, and those for whom anger is turned into debilitating hopelessness. I have always known I was the latter. I have had a lifelong inclination towards anxiety and depression. I fight it every day. Most days I know how to fight my own demons, but some days I forget or I am overwhelmed and they take over me. Some days almost all my energy is spent fighting off the demons.
Living is a choice we make every day. For some the choice is easy. For others, it’s something we can’t help but consider. We know the grief that is to come. We know the horrors, the disappointment, the loss. We know it’s coming. We know it’s here. We know it will return. We cannot un-know this or suspend disbelief. But we choose to continue to live anyway because we also know the joy and beauty are there too. We know we can connect with one another and we can be a part of something bigger than us. We can be a force, a movement, we can stand up for one another, shield one another with our bodies, we can reach across divides, we, each of us, in our own role unique to us.
At the end of the movie, Dr. Baker asks the man who she knows will become her husband and who will then, later on, abandon her and their daughter, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”
How do we go on, knowing what traumas are to come? Knowing people will die at the hands of our own government, that people’s lives will be destroyed? That their lives have already been made to endure meaningless suffering? That there is no magic wand to stop this. There never was, and there never will be.
He answers, “Maybe I would say what I felt more often. I don’t know.”
I don’t know either. Maybe the essential skill or gift, for me, is to continue to try to be a good person, to teach my daughter as well as I can, to continue to fight, both my demons and injustice, in what ways I can, though it will never be enough. Maybe everyone has their own skill or gift. Maybe there are 10,000 ways to fight. Maybe we try all of them.