A few nights ago when I had the house to myself, I decided to bust out (OK, by “bust out,” I mean play via Netflix streaming, even though I own the DVD, because sometimes I am just that lazy) one of my favorite movies of all time: Contact.
The movie was released in 1997, not too long after Independence Day hit the theaters. The trailers made it out to be another alien movie, perhaps with less stuff blowing up. I remember going to the theater expecting one thing and coming out very confused. Not confused about the plot line or the ending but more bewildered with my own thoughts about believing in stuff that can’t be seen.
In a nutshell, Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel, is about an astronomer (Ellie Arroway), an atheist committed to searching for extraterrestrial life. She is a woman of science and makes it clear to her romantic interest (Palmer Joss) that she needs physical, factual proof to believe in something’s existence, even though Palmer, a religious writer and highly spiritual man, doesn’t share her viewpoint and constantly challenges Ellie about being devoted to a phenomenon that can’t be seen. One of the most provocative exchanges in the movie occurs when Palmer asks Ellie if she loved her father, who passed away when she was 9:
Palmer: Did you love your father?
Palmer: Your dad. Did you love him?
Ellie: Yes, very much.
Palmer: Prove it.
Ellie eventually makes the discovery of a lifetime, a message coming from outer space that provides blueprints for a transportation device to the aliens’ home turf. During her journey to outer space, she witnesses celestial sights that can only make her weep, and she has a highly emotional encounter with an alien that changes everything she ever thought she knew. However, she returns from the mission proof-less, with no recordings, artifacts, or shreds of evidence that corroborate her story. No one believes her; in fact, the government insinuates that she is making up the whole story, that it’s a delusion of grandeur:
Panel member: Doctor Arroway, you come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that to put it mildly strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all… on faith?
Ellie: Is it possible that it didn’t happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that.
Michael Kitz: Wait a minute, let me get this straight. You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story.
Michael Kitz: You admit that you very well may have hallucinated this whole thing.
Michael Kitz: You admit that if you were in our position, you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism!
Michael Kitz: [standing, angrily] Then why don’t you simply withdraw your testimony, and concede that this “journey to the center of the galaxy,” in fact, never took place!
Ellie: Because I can’t. I… had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision… of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone! I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everyone, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope. But… That continues to be my wish.
This movie hit me hard when I first saw it, and it still does today. It stirs me, it makes me cry, yet I’m not fully sure why. My heart aches for Ellie, yes, but I feel something much deeper than sympathy for a character.
I’m not a religious person, but I guess you could say I am spiritual. Perhaps this movie resonates with me because I am a bit on the fence about everything “out there” that we cannot see. Having to go to full Catholic mass weddings makes me cringe and feel uncomfortable, yet I sometimes listen to gospel music on my commute to work because it just makes me feel so damn good. I’m confused by people who go from not caring a lick about religion to talking about Jesus as though they were BFF in college, yet the moment I emerged on the rooftop of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet and looked out at the Dalai Lama’s former residence, I felt something unworldly course through me and was moved to tears by a power that could not be seen, smelled, or measured.
I squirm when I am at a funeral and the priest reassures us all that “the departed is now with God,” and yet sometimes I find myself in the same position as Ellie, trying to convince people what I experienced is real, for real! Like the time I had an out-of-body experience during savasana after a particularly powerful yoga class. Or during that one crazy-intense yoga class at Kripalu, when every hair on my body stood on edge as I lifted into Vrksasana. Or, I swear, one time during a meditation sit during YTT, I could actually “hear” all of my classmates’ energies buzz above our heads.
Could I prove it? Absolutely not. Perhaps one could physically see the hairs on my arm sticking up during that intense tree pose, but would it be attributed to some higher power? Maybe I was just cold. Maybe I was aroused. And during that out-of-body savasana experience; well, to others, I was simply lying in corpse pose. But to me, I was floating above my own body. Try explaining that to someone who does yoga simply to get a toned butt!
A lot of what I do is hard to explain to others. For instance, just this morning, after a long and sweaty yoga practice at home, I arose from savasana with an overwhelmingly intense urge just to sit in meditation. After a dance of swirling colors swam before my eyes, the world turned to a deep indigo, and I felt like I was transported to a vast amphitheater of nothing but pulsing purple. It went from being isolated to just my head to surrounding my whole body. For a few moments I felt like I was on the verge of entering another dimension. I’ve tried to explain this to other people who meditate; some have also experienced the indigo bubble, others say meditation is just time to sit and be quiet. No colors, no shapes, no mysticism.
I’ve had trouble understanding the people who come to 5Rhythms who just kinda bob along to the music, not really getting into it. Like me. Like the way I do. And yet they come to class week after week after week. Why?! They’re not doing it my way, so clearly they’re not getting it. Do they need it explained to them?! And how can I possibly try to describe some of the intimate exchanges that occur between myself and other dancers, how we link arms and hang over each others’ backs, skin on skin, side by side, a theatrical pas de deux of sorts? Some of the exchanges we do are so eloquently executed, it looks like they have been choreographed. We are keenly aware of each others’ moves and presence, and the give and take of our motions looks anything but spontaneous. I tell ya, sometimes it’s hard to convince others that this is what all dance should be like. (Note: If you are a dance enthusiast, the link is worth watching. It’s a beautiful display of an improvisational duet between two dance students.)
It’s human nature for us to want to share what has happened to us, but it’s foolish to think that the world is going to drop everything and join our team. Maybe the movie was and always has been a gentle nudge for me to at least be respectful of others’ beliefs and values, rather than roll my eyes at the mere notion of something I “don’t get.” As the alien explains to Ellie:
You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.