Interstellar, Interpersonal

An epic parable on the necessity of secure attachment.


The film Interstellar has sparked fiery debate. The ineffable sci-fi epic has left much of its audience dazed, attempting to cope with the nagging hollow of irresolution—a takeaway uncommon to blockbusters. Suspicion persists. A suspicion that more was absorbed than was observed. And consequently, seemingly infinite probes dot the blogoshpere. Some infuriated and some inquisitive, there is no scarcity of scrutiny into the film’s authenticity and symbolism. But still, most grasp at the film’s ultimate meaning.

In explanation, director Christopher Nolan tells Variety magazine:

Nolan on the set of ‘Interstellar’ in the mountains of northern Iceland.

“This is the first film I’ve made where the actual experience of the film is paramount to the audience. You would think that’s the case with Batman movies, but it’s not. They’re more dependent on the reaction of characters on screen. ‘Interstellar’ is different. It harkens back to the direct experience films of ‘2001’, where you’re not just experiencing it through the characters, you are lost in it.”

I can understand why people would be angered and perplexed. We are accustomed to prepackaged cultural next-steps, quiet new neighbors in our politically correct comfort zone. Instead, in this film, we are confronted with an allegorical narrative so unsettling we dare not acknowledge it. Herein lies the timely brilliance of Interstellar.

Kubrick’s Shoulders

Interstellar wears it’s influence from 2001: A Space Odyssey rather proudly. While you’d be hard-pressed to produce a sci-fi film that did not draw some amount of inspiration from the Kubrick classic, Interstellar draws quite a few. Stunning visual cues update our imagination for space travel. And the muscular majesty of Hans Zimmer’s pipe organ is a evocation of the primal power at the heart of 2001’s musical identity. Both films meet at the instersection of humanity, technology and the future, and converge philosophically. While these relationships are worthwhile exploration, it’s the allegorical heritage on which Interstellar builds that is most compelling.

In an essay by Roger Ebert entitled, 2001 —The Monolith And The Message Ebert enlightens with prescience:

“Silence and attention are especially useful during “2001: A Space Odyssey” because here for once is a film that makes a total statement. You cannot really understand part of it until you have seen all of it. Then, afterwards, you can go back and fill in the missing places. But while it is there on the screen, you should simply let it happen to you.”

The same can be said for Interstellar.

And both 2001 and Interstellar are parables. Both put forth a big question and answer it within parallel dimensions of allegory. These dimensions are not subaqueous realms of movie nerdom and geekery. Within these dimensions, fundamentally difficult aspects of human nature are explored. These dimensions mirror our subconscious—the halmark of art. And as a consequence, to look deeply into these films is to look uncomfortably deep within ourselves.

2001: A Space Odyssey Trailer (2014)

While 2001 tells us what it is possible to become, Interstellar tells us how we are to do it.

But first we must know a few basic facts about the human condition.

The Social Mind

The truth about us is that we are social creatures. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re all the life of the party. It means that we are inextricably interconnected to others. We rely on social interaction. We begin to respond to emotional cues in a highly sophisticated way shortly after birth. Our empathic hardware allows us to experience an approximation of what we percieve another to be experiencing. This has immeasurable influence on us. The very structure of our brains is built in partnership with the people around us. Even as adults, our states of mind are collaborations, works perpetually in progress. And we need other people in order to survive. Infants who are not held or touched, even if fed and cared for in other ways, will fail to thrive and soon die.

Much about adult life is determined in the first few years after conception. And much is predicted by how we attach to a primary caregiver. This attachment is often disrupted, diminishing our ability to effectively cope with difficulty.

Trauma

What exactly is trauma? We think of trauma as what happens to people when a bomb goes off or when they are raped. That’s not what trauma is. Trauma is a snippet of your personal story that lingers unresolved producing simultaneous opposing impulses. A kind of internal negotiation with no resolution. A record skipping continuously and endlessly in your head. Two guitar strings unbearably out of tune strummed relentlessly. A stew of disabling symptoms known as PTSD can spill over into every area of life.

In order to cope, a field of competing coping stratagem leads to behaviors and thought processes that most successfully provide relief. Often, these coping mechanisms are problematic and loose efficacy over time. Lives can be radically disrupted.

And trauma doesn’t only result from a novel, extreme event. It can develop slowly because of a chronically stressful situation from which one is unable to escape. It could be years of verbal and emotional abuse or domestic violence. It could be witnessing the repeated abuse of a loved one. Maybe unresolved grief as a result of incarceration or death of a caregiver or sibling. It could even be insidious practices like regular spanking, bullying, or emotional manipulation. It could even be caused by the impact of parental stress.

The result of long term exposure to stress is known as C-PTSD or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Renowned traumatologist, John Briere, once quipped, “if Complex PTSD were ever given its due — that is, if the role of dysfunctional parenting in adult psychological disorders was ever fully recognized, the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by all mental health professionals) would shrink to the size of a thin pamphlet.”

Those among us most susceptible to trauma from chronic exposure to stress are those experiencing periods of rapid growth—our children. When exposed to stress, a child’s brain forms its more rigid structures in compensation to the stress. Decreased blood flow and electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex (the control center of the brain) with an enlargement of the amygdala (where emotions originate) is an example of stress-influenced maladaptive brain development. This is the architecture of poor impulse control, emotional dysregulation, and violence. Useful in a violent world of constant threat to survival where rage is perhaps an advantage, but not so useful in a peaceful, cooperative society. Every time a parent exhibits emotional dysregulation—loses their temper or checks out—it sculpts the child’s phsyical brain and triggers epigenetic alterations.

The ACE Study

Vincent Felitti, MD at Kaiser Perminente and Robert Anda, MD, MS, with the Center for Disease Control have been conducting the ACE Study or Adverse Childhood Experience Study for the last 20 years. This study has provided staggering proof of the health, social, and economic risks that result from childhood maltreatment. Even a single traumatic event can increase the likelihood of hundreds of negative adult outcomes including: personality disorders, dissociative disorders, poor school and work performance, addiction, cutting, criminality, anxiety, depression, cancer, decreased life expectancy and suicide. In fact, the relationship is dose-dependent — meaning; the more adversity a child faces, the more severe, and the longer it persists, the expectation of undesired consequence increases sometimes exponentially.

It’s never the thing that happens that messes them up; it’s the story they tell themselves about it…A history of secure attachment establishes the premise that no matter what happens, there is always a way back home.

Attachment and Relationship

One of the factors other than genetics that influences resilience throughout the lifetime is secure attachment with a primary caregiver. Secure Attachment is defined by deep, lasting emotional feedback between a child and his/her caregiver. The quality of this attachment sets the stage for trust building and relationship dynamics for life.

Consistent physical presence of the caregiver during waking hours and sleep, frequent holding, touching, eye-contact, play, laughter, breastfeeding, parentese, attending to cries with soothing techniques, and maintaining a stable environment all promote secure attachment.

Primary attachement is augmented by regular low stress contact with the caretaker’s intimate partner, children, extended family, friends, etc.. The more varied this foundation of adult bonding is, the better the child’s chances are for dealing successfully with life’s challenges. Greater tolerance to stress, lower incidence of learning difficulties, lesser chance of autoimmune dysfunction, lower likelihood of anxiety, depression, and addiction — hundreds of benefits have been revealed in the research. It seems that our children are born expecting to be parented in the style of the hunter-gatherer tribe and not the isolation of the modern nuclear family.

Insecure attachment leads to poor relationships. If parents don’t maintain a healthy relationship with a child, the child will seek attachment elsewhere, namely with peers. This imballance causes stunted emotional and intellectual development because rather than model mature minds these kids model each other to a maladaptive degree. Children will also engage in a variety of self-soothing behaviors which are the proving ground for powerful addictions during adolescence and adulthood. Children “act out” what they don’t yet have the means to express. We put too much emphasis on controlling a child’s behavior, failing to realize that much of what is treated as “bad behavior” is the result of the parents’ failure to maintain a healthy relationship with their child.

No matter how solid an upbringing may be, difficulty will find a growing child. But it’s never the thing that happens that messes them up; it’s the story they tell themselves about it.

What a victim thinks of him/herself and about their relationships is potentially more damaging than an assault or abuse. Usually, the body heals quickly, but a distorted sense of worth or anxiety about how people will react can be torturous and lasting.

Furthermore, a family sweeping an uncomfortable realization under the rug, taking the side of a perpetrator, or dismissing the victim’s need for professional counciling can result in persistent cumulative suffering.

But when relationships are secure, the backstory during a time of suffering is one of love, that there is family and loved ones who have been there from the begining, supporting them at their best AND their worst. Secure attachment represents a platfrom for the free flow of emotion and ideas and a support system that acknowledges and distributes the weight of life’s challenges. Secure attachment establishes the premise that no matter what happens, there is always a way back home.

Not only does secure attachment easy suffering, it frees us to spend or precious time and energy on the things that matter. Secure attachment is platform from which we can better reach our potential.

All people are storytellers. Our interpretation of life is a constant narrative we tell ourselves. By providing our children with a reliable bond, appreciation for their existence, and healthy behavior for them to model we shape the tone of their personal storytelling and the quality of their lives.

The Film

Interstellar disregards the notion of romantic love and shifts the cultural focus to parent-child attachment. With the human race in crisis, romantic love is regarded as an unwanted product of decadence. Aside from one monologue about what “love” might be, there are only a couple brushes with romance. Romance brews gently beneath the surface, a subtle tension resulting from the outward absense of it. Not even at the end when Cooper flies off to join Amelia are we coated with the usual magical love syrup. The tone of the ending is one of duty, honor, and respect - all trust-inspring qualities.

In some Eastern traditions, relationships are understood to be horizontally or vertically oriented. Horizontal relationships are those built on trust and respect, elements that if broken cause the relationship to end. Friendships, romantic or business partnerships, and relationships with peers are horizontal relationships. Vertical relationships on the other hand are those that result from a point of fact. Parent-child, master-apprentice, even owner-pet relationships continue to exist even when trust and respect are violated. This way of understanding relationships reveals a weakness in modern society that causes suffering due to unrealistic expectations of a romantic partner. Unconditional love is only possible in a vertical relationship. What we call romantic love is actually ‘trust/respect’ and when we call it “love” we dilude ourselves. We have replaced trust and respect as the basis for horizontal relationships with something that does not exist.

And so the film is centered around the bond between Cooper and his daughter, Murph. Their bond transcends time an space and secures the survival of humankind. Through this we feel the urgency with which secure attachment is needed. We are told that if we are to solve some of our most pressing problems we must allow our children to become their best selves.

The climax of the film is the moment Cooper freefalls into a supermassive black hole. This is symbolic of the courge it requires to let go of one’s maladaptive coping mechanism’s and learn to become a more effective person. Cooper falls into the unknown and discovers that in doing so he is better able to assist Murph, thereby saving the world.

Interstellar takes us deep into the recesses of our darkest memories to show us the opportunities that there reside. We acknowlege to ourselves that the things we went through were not our fault and we resolve to keep these experiences from doing continued harm to ourselves and others. The only way we can be our best for our children is to successfully face ourselves.

This is what Interstellar is telling us. Are we so brave?

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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