Arrival and regrets

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 2016 movie Arrival)

Arrival is a film about difficult, life-altering choices masquerading as a space alien drama. That’s probably why I love it so much. That, and the story centers around how linguists approach the study of unwritten languages, a problem that I’ve been associated with for most of my working life.

My son, the helper

But putting aside the geek factors, the plot of Arrival is really about the choices ordinary people make as we’re faced with some of the most excruciating human dilemmas of life.

If you could see the future ahead of time, if you could anticipate how all of your life’s choices will play out, would you change things?

It’s an absurd question, maybe a waste of time. We live in the moment. We see the future as through a fog bank if we see it at all, and we always have the most clarity about events in the past that are, by nature, indelibly carved in the stones of history.

The question is nonsensical, but I’ve been thinking about it in light of my son’s struggle with depression and his recent suicide. If I had seen in advance how his life would turn out, would I do anything differently? Would I perhaps have taken steps to prevent him from ever being born?

It’s a question about regrets and we all have regrets. Or we should, at any rate. We’re sinners, we’re broken, we’re selfish beings who too often hurt the very people we should love.

It’s also a question that seems to come from a place of compassion. If I could have saved him from all his suffering, would I have? Should I have? Some of the thorniest moral quandaries of our modern, high-tech society surround how to respond to actual or potential suffering. Should we euthanize people with untreatable diseases? Should we abort fetuses with genetic markers for some terrible condition?

Would the world be a better place if it was only inhabited by people with sound minds and bodies?

I think back over my son’s life and the many ways he suffered mentally, and I regret that he had to endure those bitter hardships. But then I think back to the joy and kindness and light and creative brilliance that he was able to bring to our family, his friends, and his many colleagues at the places where he worked, and I see God’s goodness and kindness and brilliance oozing out of Charlie’s life into the people who knew him. How can I regret that?

I would be terribly impoverished if my son had never lived. The world he touched would be diminished if he had never lived. That’s the truth that I need to keep telling myself.

Do I regret that he took his life? Of course. It was a terrible decision and a stunning defeat. We miss him beyond what words can express. Do I regret that he had to endure so much pain? Yes, absolutely. I would have taken it from him in an instant if I could have.

Do I regret that he ever lived? Not for an instant. Despite the darkness he experienced, he was a delight, a unique man created in God’s image, a man who lived shining the light of God’s love in a world that needs every bit of light it can get.

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  1. Andrew Bridges says

    I hope this is appropriate to leave here. I’ve told this story, among others, many times and still do while “at a party”, over a campfire, or at bedtime to my own boys (now 7 & 9). In any case, I wanted to share it with you too.

    My favorite memory of Charlie…
    When I was about 12 or 13yrs old, sometime after Grandpa’s passing. We were out visiting Grandma and I was having an afternoon, just me and Charlie. I was delighted because as one of the younger cousins, this was something I had always made bids for at the many family reunions. He was one of the oldest cousins, but the most warm and inclusive among them. This particular trip, Charlie took me to his house, showed me his room, told me about the various dangerous creatures that littered the yard, a vacant shoe, or occasionally even the foot of the bed. He then explained that there were some fantastic mountain biking trails we should go explore. With very little MTB experience but an eagerness to join in with whatever he wanted to; I accepted the adventure. Not long after we started off, the sun began to dip below the far-off mountains cutting into our daylight and fun. This was somewhat alarming to me. In the distance, we could see the speckles of house lights from Grandma’s neighborhood. Charlie explained we’d be better off heading there instead of trying to backtrack to the house and possibly losing the trail in the dimming light. He suggested we should follow the naturally made waterway which supposedly led straight to Grandma’s. We walked the bikes through the tall ominous ditch until we arrived at the concrete spillway leading from Grandma’s community. While thankfully nothing too exciting happened, I was both fascinated by the adventure at the time and the confidence of my older cousin, and terrified by the ominous dark and knowledge of dangerous creatures lurking about. I recall one point in the ditch sitting down to take a break. The sky was a deep purple, fading to black, but I could still just make out the red dirt that surrounded us. The silhouette of a scraggly tree hung over our spot in the ditch. I recall looking up at the tree, and then suddenly out of that darkness was a terrifying sound, a loud screech. I would’ve been out of my mind had Charlie not been casual or relaxed about it all. As we got moving again, he calmly explained, right or wrong, what Screech Owl was. Looking back, I think my 12yr old brain curated a more cartoonish, albeit frightening, sound more akin to a common Barn Owl and maybe it was just that. Nevertheless, I felt reassured, and the memory remains in that fashion.

    In my best impression of Billy Pilgrim, I go there often and sit under that tree. This is true. I couldn’t tell you why this memory juts so far out among the rest, but it does, and Charlie is there.

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