Sunday, July 26, 2015

Predestination -- can we change?

Predestination - Poster

Directors: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2014 (R)
“What if I could put him in front of you? The man that ruined your life. If I could guarantee that you'd get away with it, would you kill him?” The film opens with a voice-over and then shifts into a prolog in which a figure is trying to find a bomb and stop it from exploding. The theme seems to be revenge, right? Well, not exactly.
Predestination is a sci-fi, time-travel paradox of a movie that is based on a Robert Heinlein short-story, “All You Zombies.” It’s first act, after the prolog, seems to be long and lifeless, but is crucial to the narrative. Hang in there and the payoff is phenomenal.
The main players are not named here, they are simply referenced by their character. Ethan Hawke’s character is simply known as “The Barkeep.” In reality, he is a time traveling agent, a cop of sorts. He is sent back in time to stop crime before it happens. Sounds a lot like Minority Report, and that’s probably because both films are based on Heinlein stories. But this film is more cerebral and less violent. It takes more thought.
Ethan Hawke once more turns in a superb performance. He often flies beneath the radar. Yet, he has been nominated for Oscars four times for outstanding work. He got Best Supporting Actor nominations for last year’s Boyhood (he lost, but Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and for Training Day (he lost, but Denzel Washington won Best Actor). He also was nominated for screenplay honors for Before Midnight and Before Sunset, two of the three movies in Richard Linklater’s fabulous trilogy of films. And, of course, he was in the earlier sci-fi flick, Gattaca.
When we first meet Hawke he has escaped a terrible fire that has burned his body and he is scarred and bares a new visage. As he says looking into the mirror, “I doubt my own mother would recognize me,” a subtle reference to the plot paradox. When his rehabilitation is complete, he is sent on his final mission. But he is plagued by his one failure: to stop the Fizzle Bomber, person who detonated a bomb in New York City in the 70s and killed 11,000 people. 
Back in the 60s, Hawke is working as the Barkeep and meets a person at the bar known only as “The Unmarried Mother”. It is here, in act one, where she tells him an unbelievable story. As he sits and listens to her, the film goes into flashback more to tell her story. When it is done, Barkeep repeats the lines from the opening, and takes her on a time jump back into her past. In doing so, he introduces her to his job and her future.
In the second half of the film, we follow these two characters and slowly the plot narratives weave together until Barkeep faces the Bomber and a tough choice befalls him. And the climax reveals a secret that left me astounded and wanting to see this movie again.
Revenge may have been posited as theme at the start but it is not even primary. We may mull over the question, thinking on those that have wounded or even ruined us. But sometimes harming them damages us. So, revenge can hurt us even when we think it is freeing us. The Bible command us to leave revenge in the hands of a knowing God (Rom. 12:19).
The culture of the film, however, is cynical throughout. As Unmarried Mother points out, “You know, sometimes I think this world deserves the s*** storm that it gets.” And the Barkeep underscores, “It's easier to hate than to love, right? It's easier to destroy something. Kill somebody.” And then she puts her finger on it: “Let's face it. Nobody's innocent. Everybody just uses everybody else to get what they want.” In her ruined eyes, we are all users, not caring about others. Love is a fiction to her.
In a sense, she is right. The apostle Paul painted a savage indictment of humanity in chapter 3 of his epistle to the Romans. “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). But there is love to be found, in the all-knowing and all-loving God. And this love is enough to counteract our cynicism and depravity and bring us freedom.
But can we choose to break free of life’s paths? The movie’s title lays down the second theme: predestination. Are we trapped in a groove, like the records of the past? In the Barkeep’s career, he has tried to stop the Fizzle Bomber without success. Is it predestined that this event will happen? Can it ever be stopped? In our lives, do we have any say in the matter?
One character says to Barkeep, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” She implies we always have the potential to change ourselves and our future. Later, the Barkeep himself says,”You'll have to make tough choices. You'll influence the past. Can we change our futures?” Here is the crux, the crucial question. He doesn’t answer it.
Predestination is a much debated theme in Christian theology. Can there be free will, free choice for humans, if God is all-knowing. If he is sovereign, as is stated throughout Scripture (2 Sam. 7:22, Psa. 68:20, Acts 4:24), how can we do anything other than his will? But the Bible is also clear that we are held accountable for our choices which implies freedom to choose. We cannot be moral agents if we have no free choice. 
There is tension in this apparent paradox. We can change. We do change. We can impact our futures. We can move closer to God in Jesus and change for the better. We can move away from him and change for the worse. But we are responsible for the choices we make. We are responsible for understanding who we are, where we have come from and to determine where we want to go.
At the end, Barkeep says, “The snake that eats it's own tail, forever and ever. I know where I come from. Where do all you zombies come, from?“ Apart from this reference to the Heinlein story, he has come to grips with his past and present. Have we?
Copyright ©2015, Martin Baggs

Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Review: Beyond Willpower -- beyond my commitment level

Beyond Willpower: From stress to success in 40 days, Alexander Loyd, Harmony Books (2015) 
I really wanted to like “Beyond Willpower”. It got a lot of praise and a lot of hype. And I thought it would be good for me. But I came away disappointed. Maybe it’s me, not willing to put the exercises into practice. Maybe it’s how the book tries to marry Christianity and New Age thought together into one syncretistic whole. It just didn’t resonate entirely well with me.
Much of what author Alexander Loyd says sounds good, from the statistic that 97% of self-help books fail due to the fact that every problem stems from the fear that underlies it. Even his definition of success rings true, “True happiness and success mean living in love internally and externally in the present moment, regardless of your current circumstance.” But he hedges his bets in the definition of love and points to God/other, leaving it to the reader to fill in their personal preference.
He does give three main tools, the energy medicine tool, the reprogramming statements, and the heart screen tool. But they seem quirky to use. Moreover, when I was ready to try the basic diagnostic tool that is apparently on-line, I got to a page that asked me to sign up for free newsletters and access, and none of it materialized. At that point, I gave up.
Maybe this will work for you if you have more persistence than I do. It won’t be a matter of willpower, as Loyd makes it clear throughout that willpower works against the subconscious. It will be dedication and commitment, and I didn’t have that at this present moment. Maybe I will come back to this later. And then again, maybe not.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: Performing Under Pressure -- Short and long-term tools for handling pressure

Performing Under Pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most, Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry, Crown Business (2015)  

All of us face stress and pressure daily. How do we handle these? Do we actually know the difference between the two? Authors Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry have written an outstanding book that not only describes the nature of pressure, but gives us ways to handle it so we can perform under pressure.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part offers an understanding of the nature and science of pressure. This is not only useful as background, it is helpful to delineate stress from pressure. “Pressure moments or situations might feel like stress in our bodies and in our thinking, but they are different because, in a pressure moment, your success or your survival is truly on the line. Stressful moments … do not matter nearly as much as pressure moments to your success or survival.” (p.34)

I found it very helpful to have this clarification. Also, the authors deal with choking. We often refer to an athlete or performer choking, but the authors helped me to understand when a choke is not really a choke at all. Finally, in the opening section, the authors present recent science describing what pressure does to our brains.

The second part of the book offers 22 short-terms solutions to pressure situations. Some short, some longer, these may seem obvious, mere common sense, but there will be several that are new to any ready. And they are worth the price of the book itself. From visualization to breathing, befriending the moment to reframing the opportunity, these will help you face your pressure moment whether it is at work or at home, on the field or on the stage. I took copious notes on these, and plan to use them when I face pressure (or even stress).

The final part of the book outlines a four-fold strategy to long-term coping with pressure. Under the acronym COTE of Armor, the authors encourage us to build Confidence, walk with Optimism, work with Tenacity, and approach life with Enthusiasm. This section is a little long and belabored and not as “user-friendly” as the middle section, but still has nuggets that can be applied instantly.

The book ends with a 4-step approach to maintain your COTE of armor: 1) Affirm your self, 2) Be positive every day, 3) Commit to your best, and 4) Celebrate. This may seem a little pollyanaish, but in context of the book (and especially the final section) makes sense and offers a way to summarize and apply their teachings. I intend to polish my COTE of Armor.

I recommend this book. It is well worth reading. For more information, check out the publisher’s link.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Review: meQuilibrium: Tools to shift thinking patterns, a roadmap to resilience

meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, Jan Bruce, Andrew Shatte, and Adam Perlman, Harmony Books (2015)

These days, who isn’t stressed out or over-extended? Who couldn’t use a way to be cooler, calmer and happier? Resilience is a strength much needed in modern society. And the authors of this new book offer a two week plan to manage stress and build resilience.
I approached this book with a keen desire to be calmer and more resilient. I wanted to banish the burnout I felt slowly pulling me down, like quicksand. And the authors provided some excellent tools to help manage stress.
The book is divided into three parts: a short opening section describing the stress and missing peace. My guess is that if you read this book, you already know this. The closing section is just that: one chapter to help keep the new calmer you going. The meat of the book is in section two: the 14 day reboot. Each chapter is intended to be read for one day, focusing on the new tool and the exercise at the end of each chapter. These chapters are serial, building on each other, since some skills are fundamental to the rest.
The most powerful tool comes in day one: TMZ. To address the 7 powerhouse emotions (anger, anxiety, frustration, sadness, guilt, embarrassment and shame), the authors off the Trap It, Map It, Zap It approach, whereby you sensitize your emotional radar to recognize when you are falling into your pitfall emotion. Once trapped through early detection, you can map it, to connect it to the thought causing the emotion (and hence understand why this incident is causing this), then zap it by challenging the thought. My preponderant emotion is anger and I have used the TMZ approach to be calmer in a number of situations.
Day three offers a tool to unlock problem-solving power. The point is to understand various thinking traps and which ones you are susceptible to. Day four gives tools to be calmer, and the deep breathing techniques are very helpful. Day six suggest ways to navigate around iceberg beliefs.
Some of these tools and techniques are not new, such as the breathing and happy place ideas for calming oneself. But they are packaged holistically together in a presentable fashion. And they are proven to be helpful.
The book started out very strongly, but the chapters on sleep and eating waned a little. But after the iceberg chapter, I felt that book slowed down. Many of the chapters in days 7-14 focus on dealing with icebergs, although in specific situations.
On its own as a read, the book is quick and easy, but not very useful. Only when completing the exercises at the end of each chapter does this book come alive. And these are hard. Not in the sense of technically difficult, but in the requirement to dig deep within, to understand your inner self. Without such self-exploration, the book remains just that. With a commitment to work at each chapter, the book becomes a roadmap to inner growth.
I completed most of the chapter exercises and plan to come back to the ones that were too challenging for me at the time. Even with this, I feel I have become a little less stressed and a little more relaxed. If that’s what you want or need, I’d recommend this book. You’ll find something in it that will work for your life’s situation.

For more info:

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.