By E.F Nicholson

Before I launch into this article I need to give a clear “spoiler alert”. In order to explore the key themes I would like to address, I need to reveal the fundamental plot twist, so if you haven’t seen the movie “Arrival” it will definitely spoil it. If you haven’t watched the movie, my suggestion is to go ahead and watch it, and then come back and read this, as it’s one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. If you think you won’t be bothered either way, please proceed but spoilers do await!

The movie Arrival is in the “aliens land on earth” genre. Yet unlike most other movies within the alien genre, it’s not a horror or action movie. Rather it intelligently explores the very human themes of our experience of time, language and the nature of our relationships. One of the major themes of the movie raises the question of how we understand and experience time. Although that is one of the biggest themes that could be looked at, in this article I would like to look more at how that shift in understanding of time impacts the main character’s understanding of life and relationships.

The movie starts with a powerful and heartbreaking montage of the birth of the main protagonist Louise’s (played by Amy Adams) daughter, her growing up and moving through her childhood until it shows her daughter’s eventual tragic death. This happens during what appears to be in her late teens from some type of disease. The movie then shows Louise as a somewhat sad and isolated professor of linguistics, who is getting on with life after the death of her daughter. Then aliens show up and she is recruited by the army to try help them communicate with the aliens to find out what their purpose is and what they want. Here she meets the astrophysicist professor Ian (played by Jeremy Renner), and together they gradually understand and learn to communicate with the aliens in their language. The alien language turns out to be made of complex symbols, which they eventually understand don’t contain any reference to the past or future.

As Louise gets more immersed in the alien language, we see her having what appears to be flashbacks of her daughter’s childhood and eventually death. Yet the big plot twist is revealed at the end of the film when Louise asks the aliens, “Who is the child I keep seeing?” Its then it shown that it’s not flashbacks that she has been having, rather flash-forwards of her future. As the whole premise of the movie questions linear time, we are unware that the beginning of the film isn’t set in the past, rather the future. The aliens’ gift to humanity is their language, which will enable humans to experience time in non-linear way, in return for the help they will need from humans 3000 years from now.

               So we come to know that the tragedy of her daughter’s death isn’t past memory but future vision of what’s to come. We see in her future the astrophysicist Ian who will be her husband and the father to her daughter. Depending on how you want to see it, she is either gifted or cursed with knowing what will happen in her future. Now how the question of how free will intersects with the nature of the future and past being contained in the present is another subject I think smarter minds could explore. What I found most touching and impacting in this film was the fact that Louise consciously chooses this future, knowing it will inevitably end in the tragic death of her daughter who she will name Hannah (a name which is a palindrome, which is a nice bit of symbolism tied in). She narrates the last section of the film speaking to her daughter: “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and I welcome every moment of it.”

            Unlike Louise, none of us have a definitive vision of what our future will hold, yet we can be guaranteed of some things. We know we will eventually die and for most of us the “when” is most likely out of our hands. We know those we love will also die, in a same manner which will fall outside of our control. We know we will suffer loss, and the depth of that loss and pain will be equal to the depth of attachment and connection to that which we lose. As a father, watching the scenes of Hannah living and then dying seemed even more heartbreaking, not as a past event but a future one. As if I imagine the loss of either of my daughters in the same manner it fills me with fear, anguish and dread. Yet what fate befalls them, if I am truly honest I don’t know and can’t know.

               The movie presents Louise with a fork in the road, a choice that we will all face in life. Knowing that pain awaits, do we shy away from life and attachments to shield ourselves from the inevitable loss? Or rather like Louise states, do we “embrace it and welcome very moment of it”? Do we accept the price of all the love and beauty is its eventual loss found in the temporal nature of everything, not as something to lament or avoid, rather celebrate and accept?  Life seems to be presenting us with these constant choices of do we contract in fear, or open our hearts in love? For me this isn’t a choice we make just once, rather it ends up needing to be reaffirmed over and over.  That, for me, was the takeaway of the film. How would I live my life without fear of pain? How do I choose to love more fully and more wholeheartedly, with the knowing that yes, great pain will knock on my door but that’s ok. Knowing that suffering will befall me and to those I cherish but not to be seen as thing to avoid but a process to honour.

                  After my daughter recently had an operation on her hip, knee and ankle, her whole left leg was left with a number of scars. She has a massive one now that runs from the top of her hip to underneath her knee; it curls itself around her leg a snake. While massaging the scar tissue the other day, I was telling her about how all her scars tell a story. We discussed the story of the most recent “serpent” scar and what it spoke of. For her it reminded her of her great physical pain, her fear, and her frustration but as we continued to discuss it we saw it was also the story of her courage, her resilience, the friends that came to visit, the love she received and all the Uno we played during her recovery. We all possess seen and unseen scars from our past and we all no doubt will receive more in the future. The question isn’t will be we scared, the question is can we embrace them and own them?  Can we love them and can we welcome it all?

             There is a quality to our humanness that never fails to amaze me: our ability to bring love into and out of anything. No matter how deep the betrayal, hurt, the loss or horror, somewhere, somehow how we find it in us to love more. As when I look at my own life, the measure of suffering isn’t equal to the measure of love, rather the love exceeds it by a million-fold. The pain is real but it eventually fades away, yet love that born from pain, from life’s hardships, requires us to dig deeper and access that timeless presence. That is embodied by a kind of great unconditional love, a timeless sense of love.

           An inspirational platitude I see bandied about is “Pain is unavoidable but suffering is a choice”. I get the principle behind what it’s saying, but I think that on a practical level for most of us non-enlightened beings, suffering isn’t something we choose. Yet I think we can choose what service it is for. Like Louise in “Arrival” we can be willing take on suffering in service of love. In service to something higher and bigger than ourselves. Not in martyrdom or victimhood, rather with the awareness that it can’t be avoided, so we may as well make it something that is part of our expansion, the world’s expansion, rather than something that just adds more disillusionment and cynicism into life. Suffering in service to love is in a strange way no longer just “suffering” as we change it alchemically. In doing so we take the most human of experiences, “pain”, and transmute it into the most eternal and divine substance there is, love.

The denial of childhood trauma: The billion dollar industry that no one wants to talk about

There is no mental health or drug addiction crisis; rather it’s just a crisis of unresolved and unacknowledged pain that our economic system exploits and profits from.

By E.F Nicholson 

We often hear in the media about the crisis in mental health and addiction. In the US now there are constant reports about the “opioid epidemic”, and understandably so. The most recent figures from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention show that 64,070 people died from drug overdoses in 2016. This was a 21% increase from the year before, and they predict the figure for 2017 will be even higher. That’s just those who died, let alone the 2.1 million struggling with ongoing chronic opioid addiction. We then hear about the crisis in mental health, where depression and anxiety have increased so much so that a recent study has shown how one in six (16%) of the population have taken some form of prescription medication for their mental problems over the course of the year. Adding to that, alcohol addiction continues to increase at the staggering rate of 49% since 2000. This translates into one in eight American adults, or 12.7% percent of the U.S. population, now meeting the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder, according to the study. Although not to the severity of the US, the upward trends are also occurring in both Europe and Australia. You add illicit drug use, pornography addiction, and the other myriad numbing options we have available, and we see industries making billions of dollars, not in the healing of pain but its ultimate suppression. Then, in a weird twist of irony, these very means of supressing pain enable us to keep functioning the cogs of the machine that enforces and amplifies the very pain needing to be supressed!! But more on that later.

So why so much pain?

Studies over the past thirty years have revealed a large portion of that pain can be traced back to unresolved childhood trauma. The ACE (adverse childhood experiences) study conducted by the CDC in the US (which I have covered in more depth here in a previous article) revealed the staggering statistic that during childhood, 28% of the study had experienced physical abuse and 21%  had suffered some form of sexual abuse. Versions of this study have been repeated and have yielded the same conclusions. This particular CDC study looked at people who were white, college educated and middle class, so this is a sample from what “normal” supposedly looks like. As you move toward poorer and more marginalised sections of the population, the rates of trauma increased even further. Childhood abuse and other emotionally damaging experiences are so prevalent today that trauma-focused psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk claimed they are the single most important health problem facing the US.

The profitable elephant in the room

This isn’t to say every discernible problem regarding mental health and addiction stems from unresolved childhood trauma, but there is no doubt that much does. It’s a fundamental starting point in addressing a long-term solution regarding how we, as a society, tackle the growing problems of addiction and mental health.  However, in the media and mainstream discourse we talk, discuss and argue about everything but this simple basic fact. I think that one reason for this is that the source of trauma arises from the sanctity of the modern family unit. This isn’t “stranger danger” or “catch a predator” type villains, rather it’s our parents, grandparents and immediate family members that are most often the perpetrators of such anguish and abuse. Recognising the intimate proximity to our supposed normality is just too confronting for most people to handle. Secondly, there is a problem in how we address issues of peoples’ wellbeing through the lens of an individual’s pathology, rather than the social, familial and cultural systems those issues arise from. Treating problems with sellable substances, on a person-to-person basis, is an easier solution than addressing the very nature of societal structures themselves. Lastly, when reading these statistics in a health context, it’s easy to become detached from how they all represent increases in business profits. The fact that “every problem has a product to be purchased to provide the solution” is a big part of the very problem itself. The neoliberal dogma of “markets can solve every problem” fails when we see so much that this ideology is part of the very problem itself.

We don’t heal what we never feel.

Michael Leunig

So the end result is that we have millions of traumatised children maturing into adulthood with the expectation of ending up a somehow-functioning member of society. Yet the question not often asked is, what kind of society do they enter?  What does the experience of living in this world offer in terms of acknowledgement, healing and care? The answer, in fact, is worse than nothing. Rather they are actively encouraged to deny and supress whatever is needed to heal.   Markets provide immediate yet superficial relief from pain, an emotional pain that the teenagers entering adulthood are often not even aware they have. From food, drugs, drink, sex and electronic devices, children are directed early on to know and seek out anything and everything that gives them respite from their unrecognized pain.

What’s on offer?

The nature of our capitalist worshiping society forcefully thrusts us all into various roles: the role of workers, the gender roles of men and women, and the most critical role of all — “rabid consumer”. These roles further disconnect people from their interior world and disenfranchises them from their sense of agency and autonomy. The majority of wage earners loathe their work and endure because of survival, not out of genuine choice. In addition, the money we earn to subsist allows us access to the products that enable them to further supress our pain. For many, “keeping it all under” seems essential to be able to be a functioning member of society. As Laura K. Kerr, author of the book “Dissociation in Late Modern America: A Defense Against Soul?” mentions in her blog:

Daniel Lord Smail makes a connection between global capitalism, social hierarchies, and the body’s reaction to threats. Smail argues capitalism exploits the body’s survival responses (i.e., freeze, fight, flight, and submission) by creating the conditions of psychological domination as well as providing relief from the feelings of powerlessness that capitalism and social hierarchies engender. According to Smail, capitalism generates stress through its unpredictability and hierarchical power structures, but it also alleviates stress by producing an economy organized around the production and circulation of addictive substances and practices.

We all yearn to belong, with connection, serenity and meaningfulness at the centre of our lives. Yet the reality is the prevalence of unresolved childhood trauma is not only unacknowledged but sadly exploited by the economic system its survivors live within.  We are essentially caught in a vicious circle: in order for large sections of society to function they need to supress their pain, as our economy is built on function and nothing more. There is no room or encouragement for people to be how they truly feel, rather the wheels just keep turning and economic necessity doesn’t allow the luxury of genuine self-reflection. In addition to profits gained by keeping people numb, it also ensures that they never feel the appropriate anger and outrage in response to how utterly screwed over they are by a system that is built at the cost of the many for the benefit of the few.

The problem can’t be the solution

Human problems can’t be solved by inhumane systems, and the reality is that the way we work, interact and consume with all its alienation, disconnection and distraction takes us away from our humanness. Sadly, this move to feel less or feel nothing doesn’t come from conscious choice, rather unconscious necessity. As Erich Fromm so aptly puts it:

“A person who has not been completely alienated, who has remained sensitive and able to feel, who has not lost the sense of dignity, who is not yet “for sale”, who can still suffer over the suffering of others, who has not acquired fully the having mode of existence – briefly, a person who has remained a person and not become a thing – cannot help feeling lonely, powerless, isolated in present-day society. He cannot help doubting himself and his own convictions, if not his sanity. He cannot help suffering, even though he can experience moments of joy and clarity that are absent in the life of his “normal” contemporaries. Not rarely will he suffer from neurosis that results from the situation of a sane man living in an insane society, rather than that of the more conventional neurosis of a sick man trying to adapt himself to a sick society. In the process of going further in his analysis, i.e. of growing to greater independence and productivity, his neurotic symptoms will cure themselves.” 

Facing what’s there for ourselves and others

The solution requires first that we are honest about the extent of the childhood trauma so many people carry within them that is most often unrecognized and denied.  Secondly, as individuals, we need to go through our own process of facing our pain, whatever its origin, and doing so requires we put down our beer, turn off the TV or tablet, and be quiet enough for long enough to let what’s there rise to the surface and be seen and heard. As we become more skilled and honest about our own interior wounds, gifts and humanness, it puts us in a better position to help and support these who have yet to get there. We are all in this together, my pain is yours and yours is mine, mi casa es tu casa. It’s just an inescapable reality and the sooner we embrace and accept it the sooner we can do the healing required to move forward as one whole humanity.

Maybe Children’s Hospitals aren’t “one of the most depressing places in the world” after all…

I always used to contend that children’s hospitals are one of the most depressing places in the world. They’re teeming with sick and suffering children, surrounded by anxious and distraught parents, all tended to by often underpaid and overworked staff, and set within an impersonal and uncaring system. It’s not a hard argument to make.

me and vic

Yet our subjective view of “reality” is such that we can often forget it’s just a “view” or a “way of looking at things”. The experience of life can often be less about the reality of what happens and more about the internal states which interpret, process, and make meaning of that reality. With this in mind, as we began our time in the children’s hospital here in Murcia, I spontaneously saw something different – something that was always there, but I just failed to see it.

As we waited in the corridor for my daughter’s operation to finish, we were surrounded with other parents, family members, and friends also waiting for their child’s operation to finish. We were all bound by a common care, love ,and concern for our children’s wellbeing. Then it struck me; there’s another way to see children’s hospitals. An alternative to viewing them as “one of the most depressing places in the world” is to see them as concentrated pockets of immense love, care, and kindness.

Families pacing, doting, and surrounding their child with love and concern. Doctors, nurses, and other staff working tirelessly to alleviate and facilitate the healing of unwell children. If there’s one place you see unguarded love and care, it’s in the faces of all the families bustling through the corridors of a children’s hospital. They’re buildings filled with evidence of humanity’s ability to love. Love is expressed in joy and relief. Love is revealed in unfathomable grief and sorrow. Love that is grounded in vocation and dedication.

Being willing to see children’s hospitals as hives of human love didn’t take away any of my daughter’s pain or reduce any of our palpable anguish. Yet, instead of grumbling and moaning in my mind, it permitted me to bear witness to and appreciate the beauty of the love I saw all around me. It helped to give me faith in my fellow humans and let me marvel at how we’re truly built to love. We may not get it right, we may forget that truth, and we may get lost along the way, but it’s always there – love’s splendour and life’s ways bring us back to that.

As there are many things in the world worthy of our condemnation and cynicism, it’s critical to find the counterweights to those realities wherever and however we can – for me, at least. Framing my future visits to the children’s hospital as reminders of love’s immense tenacity and magnificence is so much easier and more affirming than, “another 11am appointment at one of the most depressing places in the world”.

This love we have in our hearts is the only real thing of value. It’s the only experience that really matters and gives life any lasting meaning. We see this all the time; stories where people somehow have minutes left to live and all they can think of doing is calling those they love to tell them how much they love them.


So, it behoves us to find it, feel it, act from it, acknowledge it, and celebrate it as the source of all of meaning and purpose. For me, it took my time at a children’s hospital to see this – for others it may be somewhere else. But, if we look for it, it’s always there. This love isn’t the goal of life; it’s the cause and it’s the fountainhead that everything else arises from. As the 14th century mystic Dame Julian of Norwich asked in a vision to God, “what our Lord’s meaning was,” she was told: “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love.