Arrival and regret

Louise Banks: If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?

Ian Donnelly: Maybe I’d say what I felt more often. I-I don’t know. —from the movie Arrival

We walk through life in a straight line. We remember the past, often vividly, but we do our living in the moment through the passage of seconds, heartbeats, breaths, words spoken, words heard. We only hold the future in our imaginations, or in that place where hopes are formed.

In Arrival, a wonderful film with a surprising and challenging moral question at its center, Louise Banks experiences time as a continuous circle where past and future are joined. In the world you and I live in, time is a one-way trip down a pitch-black street through a land we’ve never been to before.

The created universe is bound by time, but the Creator himself is timeless—eternal. Time is meaningless from his point of view, except as he sees it lived out in us. God locked us into a clockwork. We live in a place where the sun rises and falls, where the moon waxes and wanes, where trees bud, flower, bear fruit and grow dormant, only to start all over again in the spring. Time is woven into all of creation, and it’s even written into our cells.

Unlike Louise Banks, we can’t see our lives from start to finish, nor can we rewrite any of the words or sentences—much less whole chapters—in the story we’re living. But most of us do end up with regrets, and a few of us have a habit of looking back and wondering, what if?

What if life had turned out differently? What if I had made different choices? I’ve hurt people. Some of those hurts were made right through apologies, confessions, forgiveness. Some were never dealt with, for a variety of reasons. I would change those things if I could, but time has moved on. The ink on those pages has dried.

May 12 is the anniversary of my father’s death, his suicide. I regret growing up fatherless. I regret not really getting to know him. I regret that someone wasn’t able to save him from himself. I would change that, if I could, but I can’t. Time has moved on.

I realized something interesting as I was thinking about these things. Had my father lived, it’s probable that none of what has given me so much joy in my life would have been possible.

Here’s what I mean. Because of his death, our mother moved the family to another state. It was there that I was thrown into a church youth group that helped form my faith in God. It was there that I developed my musical and technical abilities. It was there that friends introduced me to my wife, who opened my heart to living in another country as a missionary, and gave me the two children I love more than life.

Which means that the very wrenching loss of my father, something I deeply regret, nevertheless brought about a set of circumstances and relationships that have given me immeasurable joy. That’s interesting.

Time may be linear, but the life-path we take through time can be very circuitous.

If I had chosen to let myself be swallowed up by regret, I surely would have missed the opportunities for joy that came my way. I had to—have to—find ways to hold the pain of that long ago May 12 tragedy someplace where I can face it, while not letting it push away the good that fills these present days. May 12 speaks into my identity as a human being, as a father, as a son, as a husband, as a man of faith, but May 12 isn’t at the heart of my story. That place belongs to my heavenly Father, the one who formed me, the one who loves me, the one who has stuck with me and has promised to bring me home to live in his house.

My father’s death occurred in a single awful moment over 60 years ago. Undoubtedly there were a great many other tragic events that day, most of which never made the nightly news. His death created enough regret to fill a river, but none of that regret by so many who knew and loved him had the slightest power to alter what he did.

“If you could see your life from start to finish, would you change things?” Some yes, some no. Mostly I realize that I would surely make a mess of things. I’m just not wise enough to have that sort of power.

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