“If you could see your life from start to finish, would you change things?” -Louise (played by Amy Adams)
One of my favorite movies is Arrival (warning mild spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it, but highly recommend that you check it out if you haven’t).
Arrival is a beautiful sci-fi movie I watch every year at this time due to a central character dealing with the loss of a child. But the movie is packed with fascinating subjects including what would happen if a super-intelligent set of alien beings arrived on Earth, how would we communicate with them, why are they here and how would countries on Earth collaborate (or not) to best understand their intentions.
I learned something new about the intricacies of this movie and its story today.
The concept of the movie is built on a theory that life is not linear. That it is set as a singular event without beginning or end. Those themes are there right from the outset and on the surface of the dialog, but then I learned about the theory behind it which is actually grounded in physics. And I’m not talking about destiny, pre-determined futures, God, etc. But the idea that our lives are somehow a single, contained event that can be traversed at any “time”. And therein lies the rub.
It binds us to a linear path, past, present, future. We know our past (thanks to memories), we live our present and we await our future. But physics tells us theoretically that our past, present and future is made up of the same physical properties meaning there’s no difference between them. Humans perceive them as different simply because of how our brains perceive the linear nature of how one moment is built upon the next is built upon the next, etc. and we have our memories of the past which helps reinforce that illusion that past/present/future concepts are somehow unique things.
But guess what? There are ways we see into the future every day! Consider jumping off a high-dive into a swimming pool. Long before you climb that ladder, step to the edge, and ultimately dive in, you know that when you land, you will get wet, cause a splash and sink into the water. There are simple examples of this all over, some small, some as heavy as, we all know that change is constant, and of course, we all know we’re going to die. This is set, essentially inevitable.
So why can’t we know exactly when or how we will die? Why can’t we know exactly what inevitable change is in store for us? Why can’t we know exactly how deep we’ll go into that water when we dive into the pool?
Once again, time. We are bound by it and there seems to be no way to step outside of it and peer into this set body of our life’s work.
I like to think of it like this: Imagine you hold out your hands. A book appears. That book contains the entire story of your life. There’s no beginning and no end because it just appeared in its completeness. But for some reason, you can only go one page at a time. Page 1, then 2, then 3, so on. You don’t know why, it’s just how it works (that’s time). You accept it, you read, and the story is riveting. It’s your life. You can’t help but page forward. Some magical force compels you in this manner.
But wait, why does time constrain us only to read one page at a time? The end of the book has the same physical properties. Pages. Ink. The air and space in-between them. The properties of physics that allows you to grab one or more with your fingers and turn them. What if, and this is the concept Arrival explores…what if I could get a gift, a key for unlocking the ability to jump to the middle or the end of that book? Physically, turning those pages would feel no different than paging forward one at a time or even jumping back toward the beginning of the book (aka memory). The only difference is the gift or knowledge that unlocked the ability to jump back and forth across the entire novel.
There’s one last property about this book. It’s been written. It’s capturing a singular event across hundreds of pages in ink pressed on paper and it cannot be re-written or changed. No matter which page you’re on, no matter which chapter you’re viewing, that is the story and it cannot be altered. Essentially, your life has been stamped in permanency.
When you think of life along this metaphor, I think it opens so many fascinating questions. In my case, the idea that what if, say, in my early 20s I had been given the knowledge that I could jump between my pages or chapters. Not time travel, just the pages are unlocked and now I know the story. One of those chapters would be my time with Wyatt. Knowing the 9-months of love, laughter and light we had while he blessed us here on Earth. But I’d also know about the 30-day ordeal that took him from this Earthly journey far too soon. What would that knowledge have done to me as a person while also knowing that it couldn’t have been altered? How would I have lived my life with this knowledge, interacted with my son, my family and loved ones differently? Would it have changed me for the better or for the worse? Where might I have improved on my reactions to various situations (I can think of several that could’ve used improvement)?
Obviously, I cannot answer those and the hundreds of other philosophical queries that could stretch and bend the mind forever while exploring this concept. But I absolutely love the idea that they are behind the story of Arrival and learning about that today was a very unique and interesting departure from my grieving process which occurs every year at this time.
Perhaps the obvious takeaway from this is that it was a good reminder that life, whether set in stone (or rather, in page), a series of chaotic coincidences happening step-by-step or being driven by some sort of mysterious supreme Being, it’s a miraculous gift. And I hope that with or without the knowledge of foresight, the one thing I wouldn’t have changed is giving Wyatt my everlasting love and laughter while he was here just like I did without it. And I would’ve also fought, felt and grieved exactly how I did regardless of what I know to have been the outcome as of this day on June 21st (and ultimately the announcement of his passing on June 22nd, 2008).
Love you Pie Man,