I grew up in household that went to the movies. The Oscars were our Super Bowl and to this day, I get giddy at this time of year – awards season. Christmas breaks are often spent catching up on all of these films and internally I am ranking and rating them. One of the films which has stuck with me this year is Arrival (Warning: This article has mild spoilers). It was beautifully filmed, featured the amazing Amy Adams (who did not disappoint in her vulnerable performance), and told such an interesting, original story. However, my big revelation about Arrival was that it is a prophetic film.
Now, let me explain what I mean when I say prophetic. I grew up in a somewhat charismatic church. Prophetic words and giftings were commonplace. It wasn’t odd to have someone shout out a word of prophecy during church, or have a visiting prophet stop by to speak in various gatherings. In seminary, I took a course on the Old Testament and we spent some time exploring the prophetic books, where I learned that prophecy wasn’t just about telling the future. My professor explained that while prophecy does involve speaking about what is to come, its main purpose was to call the Israelites back to the covenant they made with God. So, in that light, prophecy is a call to return to God’s ways.
It’s in this light, returning to who we are called to be as children of God, that I refer when I say that Arrival is a prophetic film. Amy Adam’s character in the film is a communications professor. She is brought in to help find a way to communicate with alien life forms, who have appeared in twelve vessels across the globe. Each country is trying to break the communication barrier, using their own communications and scientific experts. Early on, Adam’s character, Dr. Louise Banks, decides to shed her bulky, protective gear in order to let the aliens really see herself. It is a great act of vulnerability (both physically and emotionally) and leads to her first breakthrough in communication. When the aliens truly see her, they feel safe to approach. Day by day, Dr. Banks returns to the vessel, ready to listen and ready to learn. Slowly, she begins to understand this new language. However, distrust and misinformation begins to grow amongst the global communities, which ultimately leads to each country disconnecting from each other. The video feeds which each country shares are suddenly shut down and they stop listening to each other. Instead of helping each other, they are isolating. Communication breaks down out of their fear.
Fear is the great killer of communication.
This election cycle was rough – and that is a major understatement. I saw in this election a desire to be heard, more than a desire to listen. A desire to be right, no matter the cost. Social media platforms became battle grounds and it became a common occurrence to witness brutal arguments between friends and family members online. Civil discourse seems to have vanished before our eyes. We are at a communications shut down in many ways.
I am not merely an observer of this trend. I am also just as guilty of these acts. Out of my own fear and insecurity, I want to make my point known. I want to show others the errors of their thinking – without listening to their point of view. If I am honest, I don’t always want to listen to the person in front of me.
What I see at stake, in both Arrival and in our country, is a fight between fear and vulnerability. When we fear the other, we either hide or take a defensive posture. We receive all communication assuming that the person in front of us wishes us harm and we stop listening. But when we choose to get vulnerable, we invite the other person to be vulnerable as well. We open ourselves up to receive the communication whatever it may be. It is from this posture of vulnerability that we can truly listen.
We can choose to continue moving forward in this manner, demanding to be heard and demanding to be right. Or we can choose another path. We can choose to be vulnerable and to listen. I think back to the many interactions Jesus had during his ministry. He shares truth with those he meets, but he also listens to them. When Jesus met the woman at the well (John 4:7-45) he didn’t start by bringing up her adultery. He drew her out in conversation and listened. Let us be the people, as St. Francis of Assisi beautifully writes, who do not seek “to be understood as to understand” and see what impact those ripples have in our community.
Two Ways to Start Practicing Listening in Your Life
- I have a good friend, who often likes to, as she phrases it, get curious. So, when she’s in an argument, instead of trying to re-enforce her belief, she starts to ask questions. She tries to understand the other person. The next time you are disagreeing with another person, pause and get curious about why they believe what they believe (note: it’s helpful if your answers don’t land you with the assumption that the person is evil/dumb/delusional). Ask questions and listen without judgement.
- In writing this piece, I kept returning the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. It is a good call to each of us as we seek to listen to others. Engage with this prayer on a daily basis and be aware of how you respond to this countercultural call to console, understand and love:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.