IF YOU CHOOSE TO CONTINUE READING, SPOILERS MAY LIE AHEAD.
Last night, I met up with some friends, old and new, to play some bar trivia. It’s a summer indulgence, as staying out late past my bedtime at Sir Edmund Halley’s trying to to remember the name of that Velvet Underground song usually conflicts with me being an effective teacher on Tuesday morning. It’s a choice I choose to ignore during the school year..
In between rounds, inevitably the question from the non-teachers was “What are you doing with your summer?” which soon led to the discussion that a teacher’s extended vacation time—the exception rather than the rule here in the States—is expected in many other countries around the world. Many workers in other countries can have this much time away from work–not just teachers. It’s a shame. I don’t know you people with “real jobs” do it—wake up every weekday to work with only a week’s vacation a year. Every day in the school year, I wake up often with the goal to keep all the plates spinning, to make all my classes go off without a hitch in addition to handling any other curveballs life throws my way. It requires enough effort sometimes that it seems like taking the time to do small things—going on a hike, seeing my friends and family, musing over the meaningless in a blog post, and yes, playing bar trivia on a Monday night—seem like luxurious options limited by the necessity of obligation.
Then the Arrival of Summer. The Arrival of Choices. Time to do all the things you put aside for ten months. Time opens up, and you find yourself waking up with no plan for the day but the nagging feeling like you should have one. It wears off after a while, often at the time where you become comfortable watching a movie you’ve already seen a hundred times, or literally making a schedule out of a dentist appoinment and a kayaking trip, or shooting hoops and trying to fire out an insightful blog post. At the outset of summer vacation, choices seem infinite; but this, too, is an illusion: summer won’t last forever, there are only so many days to do all the things you dream of in the doldrums of February, and as the guy at Great Outdoor Provision Company reminded me as I mused a map of Lake Keowee: “the summer will be over be fore you know it.”
So I hopped on a river not far from my house that afternoon. My mind began to adust to this new and temporary reality in the slow, lazy paddle. And from the depths of that floating, cold water bubbled up puzzles and thoughts I had tucked in the back files of my mind for the expedience of grading papers and completing paperwork. But spurred on by sloshing water and cold beer, there is nothing but time to mull over the sparks of inspiration I had stowed away.
One such spark came when I began to muse the film Arrival. I caught this movie in the theaters and geeked out to my students. Fortunately, it came out on DVD in time to be the last film we screened in the school year. Sometimes my non-teaching friends snort with derision that getting paid by the state to show movies is like stealing money. However, the mix of adoration, confusion, and discomfort this film provided for my students sparked such myriad and diverse reaction and conversation that it has stuck with me for the last month, only now to rise to the surface of my conscious mind. The movie, without giving too much away, is challenging for them not only because of the complex story structure, but also because it challenges the basic tenets of their worldview on two major fronts.
The first is time. For our students who are driven to succeed academically, time is often expressed as a series of linear of events, always moving forward, in which they often sacrifice immediate joy for future security and happiness. If I do ‘X’, I will achieve positive future ‘Y’ and avoid negative future ‘Z’. Philosophically, the film represents an alternate perspective of time, often referred to as a “God’s-eye” view or “four-dimensional time.” Much like in Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five, time is the fourth dimension that can be traveled in multiple directions once one has the knowledge, and our traditional designations of time—past, present, and future—are but mere points on a map. In this paradigm, saying “my actions in the present cause the future” is no more logical than saying “Boston causes New York” just because one happens to be traveling south on I-95.
This characteristic of time poses the more daunting theory, that the universe is ultimately deterministic. If time can be travelled backwards and forwards, it means that what we refer to as the future is already set. If it can be known, it must already be set in stone. And if it is not created causally, it means our choices in the present do not necessarily cause our future, that doing my homework and studying for my tests over binging a season of Game of Thrones will not guarantee my ultimate future happiness. To be fair, students often feel the gnawing of this if they look at themselves in the system of school and wonder if it really matters if they sacrifice sleep for homework again or if they take the right classes to t get into the right school. For teenagers struggling to find themselves and their identity in the miasma of high school life, the idea that their choices don’t matter and that their future is already mapped out in front of them is the last thing they want to hear.
So for some students, seeing Louise give in to this deterministic model without a fight rubs them the wrong way at their very core, striking at a belief on which they found their lives—that their choices matter and that they are free to shape their future. But seeing Louise’s “big choice” in the film as one of free will vs. determinism is fairly reductive. True, it’s one of the most fundamental struggles of introductory philosophy, but as Alan Watts once posed, that either option, that we control the universe or that it controls us, presupposes that we are separate from its workings. More problematic, getting hung up in this question inhibits us from seeing life as a richer, more beautiful experience. In Louise’s choice, she realizes that sorrow will be the ultimate outcome of her decision and yet she makes it anyway. This confounds some of my students. Why will she make a choice that ultimately ends in her own sadness? The hardline freewillers want her to choose otherwise now that she knows the future, to take hold of her own destiny and bend it to her will, so they are flummoxed when she “chooses” not to. In their teenage empathy, they feel frustrated and betrayed that she simply allows the pain at the end of her choice to take place, rather than seeing how the future is laid out and taking it by the reins and changing it. After all, the paradigm of school as an instrumental good is based on making choices we don’t like, sacrificing temporary joy to secure it more permanently and avoid more pain in the future.
I had quite a few students vent this to me. It feels like adults resigning. But I kept finding a perverse comfort in Louise’s choice: it reminds me of Lebanese Poet Kahil Gibran, who in The Prophet wrote, “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall find that in truth you are weeping for that which is your delight.” Choosing otherwise, Louise could have avoided the pain only at the expense of the intervening happiness that made that pain so poingiant.
This might get bleak for a bit, but stick with me. You’ll come out on the other side. Suffering is a part of life. When Buddhists propose “get rid of desire and get rid of suffering,” it works great for not worrying about having a bigger house or a newer car. But it’s horrible advice for dealing with people. If you love and care for people, they will get sick. They will suffer. Taken literally, the Buddha’s advice would be to not care for them in the first place. Unless you’re committing to a life of ascetic monasticism, you’re committing to a life of unempathetic psychopathy, shunning relationships to avoid the inevitable pain that comes with caring about people. Making a choice to avoid one type of suffering is simply bound to bring another to your door—without the appertaining Joy as comfort. At some level, as Gibran posed, the two are intertwined, and only “when you are empty” are you balanced.”
As you can guess, many find the ending of the film to be a shade over bittersweet, tending toward the bleak and fatalistic. Those who have read the original source material—Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life” have characterized it as even darker. And while Director Denis Villeneuve admits to changing some basic facts to better evoke the audience’s empathy, those critics often miss one crucial point. In the short story, Lousie does try to do things to change the final outcome, to protect the ones she loves from the future that she knows lies ahead for them. In the end, however, she admits the relative futility of this as her attempt to protect them may have pushed them to undertake more and more risky behavior. I know. It sounds like Greek Tradgedy. Oedipus gets sent away only to fulfill the prophecy. While I don’t think the universe is built with this perverse sense of humor, there’s something to the absurdity of the universe that trying to mitigate our own suffering can sometimes cause it, that X doesn’t always prevent Y, and sometimes it causes it, that sometimes studying that extra hour makes you sleepier on the day of your test. Maybe this is what Gibran means by being empty, not being surprised when things don’t work out like you planned.
The film ends alternating major and minor chords in a palindromic violin sequence that–despite befuddling my students– I find poignant with a beautiful sadness. Perhaps this is me existing at a different point on the axis of time, able to consider this through a bit more age and experience. Enduring the difficult times of life can often lead you looking for reasons, things you could’ve done otherwise.
Realizing that these hardships are not to be avoided, but rather endured as part of the oscillation of life’s waves, and that their difficulty is inextricably linked to our love and joy does not remove the weight of the burden–the scramble for time, the re-organization of priorities–but it does salve the wounds of the sting. With these realizations–and the time to ponder–arrive choice, as the Stoics put it, of how we endure and recognize the common humanity in each other, how we deal with the moments beyond our control, and how we learn to appreciate beauty and express gratitude in even the most challenging of times.