Take a Break from Political Arguments on Facebook and Go Watch Arrival

Seriously.

Arrival landed on the perfect weekend.

It’s an understatement to say that this election season has been fraught with the kind of division that’s led to an upswing in the public expression of deep-seated fears. I needed a pick-me-up and Arrival was the perfect thing. That said, it’s not escapist. Employing poetic visuals and a contemplative pacing, Arrival invites us to peer into the most difficult and abstract quandaries of our existence. It’s science fiction at its most profound.

The familiar plot of first contact with an alien species is handled with a more personal touch than usual. This is not a spectacle film (though the visuals are stunning). Rather, it’s about what it means to be bound by time and space, confined to a singular body and mind that’s unable to break past our inherent individuality and (most importantly) our limited ability to learn about and know the world. Other films have tackled aspects of this, most recently Interstellar on the sci-fi side, Boyhood on the drama side, and currently Doctor Strange on the spiritual-superhero side. Arrival sets itself apart by addressing how language wires our brain to experience the world in specific ways. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is tasked with translating the bizarre circular language of the alien beings that have landed in twelve locations around the globe. To translate any language, one has to first learn the language. What Banks discovers in the process is that this act of learning has a fundamental effect on how she experiences reality.

Arrival offers up a beautiful meditation on the human condition. I believe it will be a serious Oscar contender and will last far beyond awards season. It presents us all as being time-bound creatures whose languages shape the way we see the world. It's more than just how we communicate with people around us, it's about how we communicate with ourselves—how our brains are actually taught to work. In the movie, Dr. Banks cites the Sapir-Wholf hypothesis that language wires the brain to experience reality in ways specific to a given language.

Arrival suggests that our limited and subjective experiences of reality are seldom, if ever, the whole picture. As the world teeters on the edge of self-destruction, Dr. Bank's profoundly personal, subjective journey of discovery offers up the unlikely but necessary solution. If we could break past our individual knowledge and linguistic barriers, maybe we could experience not an alien encounter, but the experience of truly understanding other human beings as we are able to understand our own journeys. In Arrival, there is no us versus them once the limitation of linear time is lifted. Maybe that’s all heaven is?

As our nation navigates the coming months and years following this divisive election, whether or not we make progress will largely be determined by our ability to communicate constructively with people who hold very different ideologies than we do. I walked out of Arrival being reminded that this communication has to be done with empathy at the forefront. We are all in motion though reality, existing moment by moment, eking out lives as best we can based on the limited information available to us. I think of Richard Rohr's assertion that even on our best days we're only able to call into question about five perfect of what we believe.[1]

As our ideologies clash with those of other people, maybe movies like Arrival can offer us both hope and a reminder that we are invisibly shaped by powerful forces we too often take for granted: time, space, culture, language, family, nationality, spirituality and more. Before we engage in the ongoing political and cultural wars set in motion largely by arbitrary divides (liberal/conservative, religious/non-religious, scientific/spiritual), it might be worth asking ourselves how our perceptions of reality are being shaped by the language we use (and thus, how we might be wired to think in certain ways), especially the language we use to address worldviews very different than our own.

 

[1] See Rohr’s book, Falling Upward.

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