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Have you seen the new film Arrival? It has some profound inspiration to offer us about communication, spirituality and time.
Normally, I wouldn’t be tempted to write about a science fiction film. Most turn out to be instantly disposable and forgettable: hostile aliens arrive on Earth, and humans saddle up and ride out to blow ‘em up. Boom. End of story. Yawn.
But luckily, Arrival contains none of those tired Hollywood clichés. Instead, in the mold of other thoughtfully speculative movie masterpieces—2001: A Space Odyssey; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Interstellar—this film focuses on the emotional and even spiritual implications of our human struggles with time, language and the soul.
If you have a singular sense of déjà vu while watching Arrival, it might be because this visionary and almost supernatural material remains perennially fascinating. In a literary rather than a scientific sense, many of our best artists and thinkers—St. Augustine, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, Carl Jung and Leo Tolstoy—have explored this same mysterious territory, and found it fertile with meaning.
All of those artists, scientific thinkers and philosophers have contemplated this conundrum: how do we distinguish ongoing experience from memory, and waking experience from dreams?
Based on a short story called “Story of Your Life” by the author Ted Chiang, Arrival addresses that question by telling the tale of a university professor and linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, asked by the United States military to translate the incomprehensible language of newly-arrived aliens from who-knows-where. The alien ships, piloted by seven-limbed creatures called heptapods, have simultaneously landed in several places around the world. All of the world’s large nations attempt to communicate with them, but Dr. Banks and her cohort, physicist Ian Donnelly, slowly try to figure out the complex circular symbols the heptapods use as a written language—as opposed to the linear language humans use. Without spoiling it all for you, I’ll just say that the alien language and the tragic life of her own daughter allows Dr. Banks to awaken to the fact that time isn’t linear—instead, because our language shapes our conceptual world, those circular symbols mean the aliens understand the real nature of déjà vu.
What if time is only an illusion, a function of the physical, an ephemeral construct? What if we can not only flashback, but flash forward? Arrival asks those questions, and answers them in the affirmative. This unusual film seems to take a spiritual view of the physical universe we live in, discounting the material forms of things and concentrating on their eternal spiritual reality:
When man’s soul is rarified and cleansed, spiritual links are established, and from these bonds sensations felt by the heart are produced. The human heart resembleth a mirror. When this is purified human hearts are attuned and reflect one another, and thus spiritual emotions are generated. This is like the world of dreams when man is detached from things which are tangible and experienceth those of the spirit. What amazing laws operate, and what remarkable discoveries are made! – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 108.
Only the spirit lasts, this film tells us—and that eternal presence will outlive every material thing and transcend time. The Baha’i teachings give us all exactly the same message:
…the spirit of life is omnipotent, especially when it establishes a communication with God and becomes the recipient of the eternal light—then it transforms itself into a ray of the effulgence of the eternal sun.
This station is the greatest of all stations, for this connection of the spirit of man with God is like unto a mirror and the sun of reality is reflected in it. Thus it becomes the collective center of all the virtues; its emanation is the bestowal of the king of bestowers; its radiations are the manifold splendors of the infinite luminary; its sanctity is from the highest summit of divine essence. This station is the station of heavenly inspiration and is called the station of the divine grace. It signifies that the rays of the sun of reality are resplendent in the mirror and the attributes of the sun of reality are reflected therein. This is the ultimate degree of human perfection, for the attainment of which the thinkers and philosophers of all time have longed and poets have dreamed; it is the mystery of mysteries and the light of lights wherein the spirit becomes eternal, self-subsistent, age-abiding. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 166-167.