***This post contains spoilers from the films Arrival, The Innocents, and La La Land.***
Much has been written in the wake of 2016 of our need for empathy in light of the losses and difficulty of last year. It seemed like every time I checked the news someone significant had died, some mass-casualty tragedy had struck, or the endless splintering of our society during the political season was splitting deeper, hurting more. As I’ve begun to reflect on this past year—and been reminded of events in my own life—I’ve been pestered by this hard-to-fathom though necessary question: if we could do it all over again, would we?
If we could somehow avoid the discomfort, the pain, the loss of life, the hate speech resounding from Twitter feeds to microphone stands across the country—if we could avoid it all, would we? Or is there, perhaps, some reason to be grateful for 2016, some reason the rotting interior of our country has been exposed to the light? And would we dare re-live these difficult experiences again, or, at the very least, be somehow grateful for them?
After all, I’ve asked this last question of myself for years. February 2nd marked the ninth anniversary of one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I was seventeen, living in Chad, where my parents worked, and we were passing through Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, when we received the news that rebels had decided to mobilize and were now making a lightning-quick move on the city. We were used to hearing these sorts of rumors; the rebels, after all, had up until that point been waging their rebellion hundreds of miles away. As more and more people began sharing these new developments with us, we realized that there was truth to them. But without any place to go in the midst of the unknown, we decided to wait out the rumors in a small N’Djamena guesthouse.
Over the next few days, the phone lines cut, then the electricity and water as the government prepared for an invasion, until one morning I woke to the sound of howitzer guns and artillery beating like drums on the city’s outskirts. My parents and I gathered with the friends we were staying with to figure out what we would do. But our ability to process and plan was quickly paralyzed by the deafening gunshots breaking out all around us. Our response: to kneel and pray together. We prayed and we sang hymns as submachine gun fire erupted around our house. We prayed harder as helicopters careened overhead and were met by screaming rocket-propelled grenades.
That night, the city grew quiet. There were rumors that the president was surrounded, had been deposed, or that the rebels had been defeated. It was hard to tell what was true and what was false. Only I could hear from the sporadic gunfire coming from different parts of the city that there was a spirit of lawlessness spread throughout, latent energy threatening to strike.
Sure enough, a number of looters scaled our wall, firing a shot into the air, breaking into the house we were all staying in, finding us huddled together, praying and expecting the worst. Hushed, we had scurried into the furthest extremity of the house while my father went out to meet them. They roughed him up, grabbed whatever they could—laptops, car keys, etc.—and though I heard it all from another room, I only came face to face with one of the men. He was young. Barely older than me, and he seemed just as scared. He swallowed before extending his arm. Jewelry. Cell phones. Money. And just like that, the looters were gone. An invasion that couldn’t have lasted more than twenty minutes.
Yet so much of my life has been shaped by this one concentrated moment—my relationships, my wandering across continents in the years afterward, my writing. I could easily have let this experience color my entire childhood in Chad. I could have focused on the sleepless nights that followed, the months my family had to live abroad, waiting for a chance to return to Chad once peace was restored. I could focus on the destruction that happened in the lives of my friends, and how many of them left the country in the wake of war and I would never see them again. But instead, by the grace of God, I have claimed this experience and others like it as an altar, a point of reset, of relentless interrogation of who and what I am.
Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
I have come to be grateful for this experience, painful as it was, because it has given me a lens—toward the world, toward myself. A lens reminding me of the immediacy of now, that every moment demands my best self for the sake of my neighbor. Because of the relentlessness of memory, I realize that I must submit myself to its cleansing, recursive process. What is in me that needs to be redressed, corrected? Is what I am doing now helping someone else, helping to ease the pain of my neighbor and not just my own? I ask myself these questions and in so doing, I am reminded of the world’s pain and the need to do everything to curb it, confront it, and console it with love, even though daily efforts seem so insignificant on a large scale.
This past year surprised me in that I’ve found these questions echoed in so many works of art that have been released: from Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds to the films Arrival, The Innocents, and La La Land. It’s these three films I want to focus on here at the end: three films that wrestle with this question of loss and recovery. At the end of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, the main character faces a decision. Knowing the future, does she actively choose suffering—and all the trauma associated with it—or does she go the easy way out and avoid the pain? The pull of longing in either direction is staggering. And in The Innocents, Polish nuns who have endured unspeakable acts of violence at the hands of Nazis and Soviets write to a French nurse who helped them overcome their trauma, telling her that she was “a gift from God,” someone they are unendingly grateful for having known, for having experienced loss and trauma together in solidarity. Even La La Land, a movie that seems lighthearted and trivial compared with the previous two films, contains within it a profound sense of missed opportunity yet gratefulness for what was. There’s a wonderful moment when Emma Stone’s and Ryan Gosling’s characters re-imagine a kind of alternate reality for their relationship and careers—and we’re left feeling a mix of emotions that can’t be described yet somehow feels convicting. The pain is bittersweet, the regret overpowering yet somehow seeming necessary, illuminating: nostalgia as a self-purifying force.
I wonder if we will remember this past year in much the same way—that as dark and painful as it was, that there was still some good in it because it has taught us more about ourselves than no normal year could ever have. No one needs to remind us that the tasks before us are many, but memory and our ability to grow through pain must be a virtue we develop. I hope our response then is not to call for a do-over, to raise up our hands and let the status quo continue, but to turn our eyes inward, ask what is needed from each of us, and be ready to reach out across the divides—and there are so many—for some glimpse of betterment and hope.
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