Written by Dyami Millarson
Neither a summary nor a review of the 2019 film Ad Astra will be provided here. Suffice it to say that I think it is a movie with a classical style that really makes you feel the ancient void of space; as a result, I felt an awe-inspiring emptiness, a kind of artistic nihilism, throughout the movie and this may be psychologically confronting to human beings. There will be no major plot spoilers in this article, because what I am interested in is the implications of the (ending of the) movie. Yesterday I watched this movie to be inspired, and it did indeed provide me with answers that I was looking for right now in my life, or at least it made me think more about the things that have been on my mind lately. Namely, the concept of trying to look for things/beings far away instead of what is close is the philosophical theme in this movie that caught my attention.
The conclusion of the protagonist in the movie, after experiencing his own extensive character-development following a spiritual and literally mind-alterating voyage (the coalescence of the literal and symbolic is a common thread through this movie), is that when we look far away, we forget the people right in front of us. This movie thus served as a philosophical critique of our society that focuses on things far away and lofty concepts too abstract to be practical. It helped me think about two things:
First of all, I have close, irreplaceable friendships with people from all around the world while I have almost no local contacts. I do not interact much with the local Frisians around me, and in that way I am like the protagonist of Ad Astra who is, as the beautiful Latin title suggests, looking ‘towards the stars’ instead of looking at the people around him. In fact, I think seeing the people right in front of us and truly connecting with them is the hardest thing to do, and therefore truly connecting with the Frisians who are all around me is the biggest challenge in my life that I have yet to come to terms with. Of course, interacting with other cultures is rewarding and challenging, yet it is easy to dismiss and completely forget about one’s local environment, as one ventures into the cultural unknown; even without adventures into the unknown, truly connecting with the people around you is no easy task.
My personal development, as with the spiritual development of the protagonist in Ad Astra, is the result of travelling in 2017 to East Asia which is as far removed physically as it is culturally from where I live, and it has helped me to realise that I looked towards distant places, namely the Far East, instead of the people right in front of me, namely the Frisians. I did learn Standard Frisian, which is a compromise between Wood Frisian and Clay Frisian, in 2016 and in 2018 when Frisian culture was being celebrated for an entire year, I delved deeper into Frisian diversity by learning to speak three small languages that ultimately descend from Old Frisian just like Standard Frisian. These languages have given me the means to connect with people and they have given me access to new social circles, and this has definitely aided my personal development to come to a stage where I ponder why I have not connected much with the people in my own local environment to the point where I have no local friends at all. In this regard, my development has been slow like a space voyage; I have wandered off into the void for years and I have finally realised that I should try seeking connection locally as well as I have finally realised how to do so.
I have often wondered why linguists travel all around the world to save distant indigenous languages, while simultaneously allowing languages spoken in their local area to perish. Wandering off into distant places sounds noble and adventurous, but just as it puzzles the peoples who receive such ‘noble, adventurous strangers’, it puzzles the people back home. I learned in East Asia, while I did my best to integrate with the local culture, that focusing on the home and the local area is essential, and focusing on distant lands may not necessarily be relevant, contradicting my own instinct. Asians often expressed the sentiment to me: ‘Go back home and live your life there’. To me, it seemed dismissive at first, but over time, I saw there is some wisdom in there. It may be contrary to my Western upbringing, but the Eastern way of thinking has merit; I did indeed not have much to return to and that is what I had to work on after 2017. This is also why I was more convinced than ever in 2018 that we must focus on the indigenous languages spoken around us and that we should strive to preserve the traditional lingusitic diversity that surrounds us in our local environment. The take-away message of our project in 2018 was that the three small Frisian languages we learned had survived until 2018 against all odds and despite predictions of their imminent demise, and they would, according to our view based on our actions for acquiring the languages as though they have always been our native tongues, survive far beyond 2018.
Since 2009, I have been living in Leeuwarden, Frisia. Only recently, on a walk on Monday 30 September, it truly dawned on me that I am in Frisia and I finally truly realised where I am in the world; I had taken it for granted, and Frisia had been an abstract concept to me that I did not see as anywhere in particular. This may make some Frisians uneasy, because they love their heitelân (fatherland), but I think that not knowing where we are in life, not just symbolically but literally, is a common problem experienced in the modern internationally focused world where people regularly look down on local affairs and think a local focus would be narrow-minded. For instance, the expression ‘local language’ itself carries a negative undertone and sounds like ‘dialect’ which carries the very negative and undoubtedly stigmatic connotation: ‘being of lower linguistic status’.
In the beginning when I moved to Frisia in 2009, I thought about Frisian language and culture in the same way, because I had been very internationally oriented while I had been attending a bilingual school previously. This gave me a huge advantage with English and my motivation to learn Frisian was non-existent. It was only when an Irishman once told me over Skype that ‘Frisian is like the little brother of English, we should protect Frisian’ when my eyes slowly started to open, but although it left an indelible impression on me he said that, I did still not think much of it and in fact even disagreed with him and expressed my dismay to that Irishman, even feeling uninterested in our contact at that point due to the fact he tried to make me interested in something local and something that frankly seemed narrow-minded and embarrassing to me.
I wanted to do ‘more important’ things like studying the international languages of the ancient world: Latin and Greek. I did not think of anything local as relevant. It seemed completely unrelated to me and it made no sense for my future, or so I thought. I did not really see the benefit at the time, and I thought it definitely would not make a good career. I could not have been more mistaken, and I should not have followed popular opinion so blindly. However, I was a teenager at the time and I did not really want to stand out too much.
I was already having a hard time at school owing to my interest in ‘weird foreign languages that are not included in the school curriculum’. My interest in national languages of powerful countries and dead languages of powerful ancient peoples/empires was quite similar to that of polyglots who shared their interest online in learning (usually socially safe and economically useful, thus socio-economically acceptable) languages, but over time my view has changed drastically from the polyglots I once admired and in whose footsteps I wanted to follow. Once I wanted to be like them and I felt like them, but for many years now, I have been following my own path. I have often emphasised that I am different from the polyglot movement and that I do not identify as a polyglot; because of my current altruism-based worldview with regards to languages, I reject being classified as ‘yet another polyglot’ and I do therefore also not answer questions about how many languages I actually speak. Others have often tried in vain to get an answer from me, but I will never answer this question, because it does no service to my deeply held belief that we should learn languages for altruistic, human, pro-social reasons. Morality is at the centre of my thought with regards to the learning of languages. I do not learn languages for the numbers, but I learn languages for others; I wish to serve others and benefit others, I do not want to serve and benefit myself first and foremost. Because of this, I cannot identify with polyglottery whilst counting how many languages I speak goes against my core beliefs and principles; it is not about me, but it is about others and their linguistic heritage that I am eagerly studying as a selfless act of charity for all of humanity. Others may note my zeal sounds religious, and I will not deny this; I am on a mission, and I hope to inspire others as well.
My first impression of Frisian was that it was basically weird Dutch. I spontaneously rejected it as an illegitimate language with no separate identity and history tied to it. At that time, I thought of speaking Latin as more important than speaking Frisian, because I thought the achievements of the Roman Empire, as opposed to the Frisians who were nearly subjugated by the Romans, were so much more important, and this sense of Roman superiority was nourished by my education at grammar school where Roman superiority was often very explicitly exalted and we would marvel at how superior the Romans were. Nowadays, I see this as the succesful continuation of Roman Imperial propaganda into modern times, and this is actually a tragic glossing over all the atrocities that the Empire committed, even by the standards of its time it could be excessively cruel and unreasonably violent.
My disinterest in Frisian gradually developed into admiration for Frisian people, as I lived longer in Frisia. However, it took until the arrival of Ken Ho in 2016 before I truly felt compelled to actually learn it; I had always postponed it indefinitely so that I would never actually do it, and 2016 presented me with the right opportunity to learn the language properly. By 2016, I had already long agreed to the notion that Frisian is not a dialect; my perception of Frisian had shifted from it being a dialect inferior to Dutch to it being a language unique in its own right. When I looked down on Frisian, I was not linguistically ignorant; however, I simply could not agree to the notion that Frisian should not or could not technically be considered a Dutch dialect, because I thought to classify it as a language for historical reasons would be absurd based on criteria of mutual intelligibility. I insisted on Frisian being a dialect until I became convinced otherwise, and this was part of my journey in life and finding new purpose in Frisia, where I have lived since 2009. The Frisians have won my admiration, they changed my views and they have given me a new mission for the benefit of humanity. As I understand it, Frisians are one of the last historical tribes in Europe and being a notoriously down-to-earth and humble indigenous tribe, they do indeed have a lot to teach us about the world we live in and why human connection matters a lot.
The film Ad Astra teaches us the importance of human connection: ‘We’re all we’ve got.’ As the protagonist in Ad Astra ventures deeper and deeper into space in search of the distant father, I have ventured deep into the study of ancient, dead languages and international languages, but I did not connect to the local language and culture around me. It is now after many years that I realise the necessity of making friends with local Frisian people and relying on Frisian people in my immediate environment, and because of this realisation, I can come up with creative ideas now how to make Frisian friends. Mentally I am ready after a long journey. Like the protagonist in Ad Astra had to go on a journey before realising the importance of the people around him, I had to make a huge detour before I could fully appreciate what is around me in Frisia. Frisians appreciate their privacy and they do not mind having alone time. The Frisian tribe may generally be somewhat shy and so I understand the ice has to be broken somehow. I know that if I approach Frisians empty-handed, this might not be interesting enough for keeping contact. Just like one does not approach an uncontacted tribe without a few presents, I think that generosity is a virtue that the majority of Frisians will appreciate, and therefore being generous in various, creative ways could win me Frisian friends. They say in English: If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
I’ve got Frisians around me in Frisia, so I should make Frisian friends and share my enthusiasm about their language and culture with them. After all, since I have lived in Frisia for 10 years and I have learned to speak and write the language and I have intimately acquainted myself with the history and culture and I now feel it is my personal destiny to make friends in Frisia, I do feel Frisian myself. I do feel connected to others around me, but I have just not expressed it enough to people I meet outside my home and so I have not yet made local friends who know my (com)passion for the language, culture and history that is local here in Frisia where we live. Ad Astra made me think, and I felt its message about human connection is very relevant to my life right now. One of the hardest things in life is to truly connect with the people right in front of you. The Frisians are close to me; they are the people right in front of me, with whom I should connect. This is the mystery of the tree and well as described by Paul C. Bauschatz (1982); fate flows through the tree in mysterious ways and it is no coincidence that the flows of fate pushed me in the direction of Frisia, for there was a lot for me to learn here and it proved to be the right place for me to realise my own charitable mission in life. Frisia has helped me find peace in my soul and to accept my own destiny that requires sincere generosity towards those around me.
What a fascinating and illuminating post! I had to google Frisia and found myself delighted—I have never met nor corresponded with a Frisian before. I am so glad you are sending out roots where you’re planted.
As an American, I will say that, sadly, we are on the other side of the spectrum. (It seems we humans have a hard time residing in the middle ground. We’re either all about focusing outward at the expense and exclusion of the inward, or focusing inward at the expense and exclusion of the outward.) Here in the states I find (and perhaps this is judgmental) we have the opposite problem as the one you describe. We tend to focus outward beyond our country’s borders, but only in a superficial way. This does, by no means, include all Americans of course! Let me provide an example. I will call this example American, Taylor.
Taylor lives life for himself. He is constantly thinking about what he can buy to satisfy whatever desire he has for the latest technology, car, clothes, etc. He spends more time wondering about what he’s going to eat at the next meal, or what club he’s going to tonight after he works out, than the well-being of his friend who texted this morning asking for “prayer” or “good vibes” or “good thoughts” for their mother who was going into surgery that afternoon. Taylor knows deep down his life is all about himself, but he silences this guilt by constantly entertaining himself to drown out that nagging insistence. Social media. Apps. Getting angry about politics. Movies. Binging on Netflix. Books, even—though reading seems antiquated and boring. Another way to silence the guilt is to join a cause or a charity, so Taylor decides to donate money to a charity. He spends five minutes deciding which one, then clicks the button, sending his money to very real people with very real needs, and then never thinks about them again. Maybe a few times now and then, but it’s fleeting. In the meantime, what to eat for dinner?
I realize this is horrifically depressing, but it’s simply an observation; a pitfall I pray my kids never fall in to, and one I’ve struggled with myself many times in many different, insidious ways. I am far from perfect, and know Taylor’s life in a far too intimate way. If and when we Americans focus outward, we should not just be like the rich father who abandoned his kids and sends an extravagant gift every birthday and Christmas thinking that makes it okay, but actually go there and do something, or spend serious time praying for them. And then instead of being inwardly focused on ourselves, be inwardly focused on the needy in our own city, whether it’s the homeless or recovering addicts or orphans or our friend’s mother who is getting surgery.
I will say it’s very difficult to do over here in the states because there are so many pleasurable pitfalls. We’re all like the kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Everyone says don’t taste or touch but it’s all before us all the time.
I realize this makes it sound like we are ungrateful and spoiled (and many of us are)…but honestly, who wouldn’t be in our shoes? Many Americans I’ve spoken to who spent a good amount of time overseas amongst the poor in other nations become overwhelmed at how happy the people are despite the fact that they have nothing. To us, it makes no sense. And is both breathtakingly beautiful, and horrifically sad. It makes our own station so frighteningly clear.
Here, we have everything and nothing.
What we should have, is each other. Just like what you were saying about Frisians. We’re inwardly focused, but it’s in an individual level. We should be locally focused instead, and if we have the opportunity to give or make a meaningful purposeful visit to another country, then do that. But I believe we were also placed where we are for a reason.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Even, and most especially, in the small things. We shouldn’t focus on changing our actions, but our hearts, and THAT will change our actions.
I very much enjoyed your post. It gave me much food for thought.
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Hello dear friend!
It took me a little while to reply to this wonderful, heart-warming comment. Your words are encouraging to me and others. I truly appreciate you gave my post deeper consideration and you even took the time to find out more about Frisia online. Witnessing your genuinely compassionate heart, I am sincerely grateful for everything; so I am happy to be the first person from Frisia that you correspond with, I feel it is an honour and a nice coincidence because I have reached a point in my life where I feel genuine enthusiasm to share more about where I live, Frisia. This is where my journey in life has taken me and as a result of destiny, I feel truly Frisian and I feel at home here. To borrow your poetic words, I am sending out roots where I am planted.
In Eastern philosophy, both-and thinking is encouraged. In similar fashion, I have come to believe that we can hold two ideas simultaneously in our minds: the local and the international. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive, even if many people deem them contradictory ideas.
I agree that balance is needed. We live on the same planet in the same universe, yet we are also placed in a specific location on that planet in the universe. I like what you said: “[W]e were also placed where we are for a reason.”
I do hope as well that if I have children one day, they will grow up to be thinking and compassionate individuals. This is something to hold on to for the construction of the future that we wish to see.
Thank you so much, Mandy!
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Hey Dyami, my friend! Wow, I read your reply several times…it meant so much to me. How incredible we can find friends across oceans—and across the vast emptiness that the internet often is. This gives me hope. 🙌🏼😄 Especially for this next generation. They are special and unique. Scary as well, because they are powerful. They have a voice. They have a platform and unity literally none in the history of the world has had before, thanks to the internet and social media. They are scary in the way a hammer is scary. They are poised in the years to come to either build…or destroy. I believe both will happen, but is not that the history of humankind? As long as we have both! 🙏🏼 And friendships across oceans. 🤗 Finding that balance between inward and outward, like you said, will be crucial to building! We must build each other up before we go out and build in the world. Blessings, friend! I pray this comment finds you well.
I apologize for taking so long to reply! I have periods of drought due to depression, during which I retreat from everything, and this is what happened. Thankfully, I am back on here for a bit to post a new small chapter in my comedy web serial, but who knows if I’ll be back on here for any length of time. Praying the riptide doesn’t take me under again, but if it does, I can still be fruitful, just in the peace of my own home. 🙌🏼🥰
Hello! I’m far from a grammar Nazi but you might want to consider editing this sentence “If life gives you lemonade, make lemonade” to “If life gives you LEMONS, make lemonade.” It could improve on your already intriguing post.
You’re very fortunate to be able to live in Frisia for 10 years. It’s a rare and privileged opportunity to truly immerse in a unique local language and culture. How do you get by without local friends throughout all these years? In most cultures, it’s easier to form lifelong friendships before turning 25.
Just by reading about Frisia already got me excited about mudflat hiking and snert with rye bread. I’d probably try out tons of local recipes, organize lunch or dinner at my place then ask local Frisians their opinion or tips on ways to improvise my cooking. Since Frisia is a coastal region devoid of feudal system and serfdom, how does that shape their thoughts and behavior? Are Frisians in general less competitive and more altruistic? Are Frisians direct in speech and complain as much as their German counterparts or are they as enterprising as Dutch? Interesting topics to elucidate.
I was born and bred as a third generation Chinese immigrant in Malaysia. Despite being an oversea born Chinese, I could trace my lineage all the way back in China since the Tang dynasty. I had to be fluent in the native Malay language out of necessity and not necessarily by choice. Kids born to rich parents always had the option of pursuing higher education abroad. It’s funny that I perpetually feel like an outsider regardless of the years I’ve lived in the country. There are two sets of exam papers for college entrance, one set for the self-proclaimed natives and another set meant for immigrants. Prior to the 2018 general election, the government systematically controlled the number of immigrant candidates allowed in public service. Life was challenging yet it made us very adaptable to changes.
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Love this overview of the movie. I’ve been iffy about wanting to see this as I’m not much of a Brad Pitt fan.
However, after reading your use of “ancient void of space” and “artistic nihilism” to describe this film, it has joined my must view list.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson and H.P. Lovecraft have both noted space is big, not very welcoming to humans, and unconcerned with our insignificance in the universe. Your notations on the human connection is really what made me take notice here. So much of scifi literature is built around the human connection and the human condition, yet so little of that ever makes it into scifi film and tv, with The Expanse being a terrific example of
what scifi on film should look like.
I absolutely love your work with “weird foreign languages” and dying and dead languages. I’ve always struggled in learning languages but have long shared a fascination with Icelandic, Faroese, and other Nordic tradition languages, thanks to the music of bands such as Tyr, Korpiklaani, and Finntroll. I still struggle with the languages, but often find myself using Google translate to make use of some of them for story names and languages.
After seeing some of the linguistics articles, here are some text recommendations for you, if you haven’t already encountered them in your previous readings:
– Noam Chomsky. A Review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior – origin of Chomsky’s language acquisition theory
– Noam Chomsky. Language and Freedom -builds on thel ideas from the earlier essay to establish a better theoretical framework for understanding language acquisition
– Steven Pinker. The Language Instinct. builds on Chomsky’s ideas with more background on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology role in language acquisition
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An eloquent piece. Fantastic writing and insights. I am a linguistics fan myself and was excited by what you had to share here about Frisians and their language. Thank you
Great post and great inputs in the comments section 😊
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If you reach out people will come to you I find. I’m often in different towns and Cities and have to connect to strangers and make friends quickly. Especially difficult to connect if there is a language barrier but I always find a way and people are most generous to help if asked.
All my best wishes Charlotte
I cannot wait to see the movie and am even more excited now that I’ve heard your personal connection to it. Seeing what is right in front of us can be difficult. A linguistically interesting phrase, “You can’t see the forest for the trees” is a way to describe the opposite of our problem. I also, have always wanted to do something far-away and important, similar to what you expressed. The main character, you, and I are so forest focused we have trouble seeing the trees!
Having lived in Friesland, I could tell you stories. It’s a beautiful land with amazing sunsets.
The ancient Frisians were the only people who drove the Romans out of their land. Yes, I was volunteering one day for an archeological dig, when a student told me and my friend this fact.
But your story is amazing and surprising about your language journeys.
I can imagine Asian people advising you to go home to live your life and make connections.
Learning languages can open up a world and culture in profound ways. The understanding I have gathered about people’s cultures from living inside a new language have broadened my world view. It’s a great treasure that your love of language has brought you to a deep understanding of compassion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Hope your journey to meet people continues.
Thanks for sharing
I like your introspective take on this new flick. I think I’m gonna check it out now. I had to Google where Frisia was, haha. Sounds like you have a pretty cool life!
Interesting information. I am learning new things everyday and found your blog provided me with some new thoughts. Make friends, enjoy your new friends. Step out of your comfort zone. Good luck in the future.
I was able to gain insight about the movie from your write-up. It is interesting to note how the movie touched you. Anand Bose from Kerala
I was frustrated that I won’t be able to afford to travel outside the US this coming year. I looked at my community with distain as a result. Your post completely changed my perspective. I realize there is much I don’t know about it and would benefit from finding out. I’ll spend the year doing that. Thank you! And thanks for the likes.
I’m beginning to understand why you answered reporters’ questions tomorrow in that reporter interview in 2018. I’ve also been thinking about why to save endangered languages, because from my superficial point of view, I can’t find out what it’s good for me, even if I’m very supportive of philanthropy. As you said, learning endangered languages cannot be learned for numbers, nor can they be used as a means to improve vocational skills. Until I read this article, I really looked at the project of saving endangered languages and cultures with a narrow perspective. For you who are carrying out this project, you are looking at the business from the perspective of “self”. It’s for the sake of others. Many people in the world behave like the hero of the film. For example, dialect is regarded as an inferior language. However, this language, which we regard as an inferior, retains the culture that has been spread in the local area for thousands of years. It is also this “inferior language” that gives us a sense of belonging. Most of the time, the reason why we miss a lot of things is that we live in such a hurry that we only focus on the more distant things and ignore the things in front of us.