Dunkirk and the Flow State of Humanity

An alternative view provoked by Christopher Nolan

Upon studying Flow and the different stages that lead up to what’s being called the Flow State I have come to the conclusion that it deserves a lot more attention and focus. So much so that after grasping the concept, the possibility of a book begun to develop in my mind, which has now held my sustained attention and efforts this past month.
As a result of this total absorption any related thought entering my mind has been re-framed through a filter of flow, and it was that such a thought came to me whilst watching Dunkirk: The state of flow, or simply the life cycle of flow can be applied to humanity itself.

Now, flow being my new thing, or new new thing, considering I go through about 2–3 new things/ideas a month — I have decided to start writing on Medium to document this new obsession. This is as much for myself as anyone else, and for the sake of those who are used to good writing, I’ll caveat the following by classifying myself as amateur at best. That said, I love to write and it’s the only activity which has allowed me to experience the Flow State — so I shall struggle on.

There are four stages that make up the flow cycle, as proposed by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, and they are as follows:
1. Struggle
2. Release
3. Flow
4. Recovery

Each stage relies on and is interconnected to the other in a type of feedback loop, which can be observed throughout various moments in nature. During the flow cycle there is a cascade of neurochemical reactions that take place in the human brain and it could be argued that for some present on that fateful day these were experienced. But I’m trying to think about this on a grand scale, so lets begin by setting the scene and watch the trailer:

In my opinion it was a brilliant film and what really stood out for me was the way in which it made you feel. It’s not particularly violent or graphic and even though it may appear as though it lacks structure, this creates feelings of confusion, hopelessness, suspense and struggle. This is the story of 400,000 men struggling to get across the English Channel, struggling to reach home, struggling to find a way out. This is 400,000 men experiencing the first stage of the flow cycle.

The fifth factor encompassing the experience of Flow, identified by the father of Flow Theory — Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is: A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered. Throughout the film there is the irregular and almost insidious ticking of a clock, the use of which almost forces the audience to pay attention to the significance of time or lack thereof. This throws you from your seat and onto the beach where you desperately look for a release in what appears like a helpless situation. The lack of background given for each character allows you to crawl even further into the experience as you fight to survive, finding no solace in the commanding officer, whose rank and title goes unregistered by enemy bombs.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — Gandalf

There are many paths to tread in life and the way of suicide is one we’re constantly confronted with in today’s world. As the second leading cause of death worldwide with almost 800,000 cases — Christopher Nolan’s choice to remind us of it yet again, not only amplifies our existing feelings but also introduces to us another possibility for the release we seek. It now becomes a battle of attrition, counting yourself among the enemy, your survival is the victory. We humans have an intrinsic ability to hold onto hope and this is our greatest weapon. There’s no hiding from the struggle. It will push you to the edge and over if you let it.

Hope arrives in the form of a civilian fleet. Then the moment hits, you’re standing on the end of a pier when the rush of Nitric Oxide releases you from the fear of death. But it is not the same for all, this world does not work like that and for some the next stage is nowhere in sight. For some the cycle repeats before it has been completed and they’re forced back into the struggle. And it is with those who we must share compassion and express empathy.

There is evidence of the flow cycle in many facets of life, both within a 9 day struggle for survival or on the slow unfolding scale of our history. I could express my thoughts on whether this Flow State was reached by those who survived Dunkirk, but I’m not sure it’s relevant. Instead, I’ll leave you with the thought I had while watching bodies roll in on a rising tide.

Why just Dunkirk — why not the whole of humanity? We’ve already experienced two major world wars, and countless others in human history and it feels as though we’re on the brink of a third. We live in an incredibly complicated, often confusing world and it could be said that the whole of humanity is stuck on a beach with just a channel separating us from peace — all we have to do is survive long enough to reach it.

Perhaps the greatest gift that we can give to each other is a greater understanding of ourselves.