Why can’t life be like movies?

Let us begin with the understatement that I am a romantic.

I have this borderline obsession with ideals–anything short of unique I declare as banal, and everything not forever lasting I consider pointless. I used to spend most of my hours daydreaming about true love, and the rest sneering at oh-so-lame couples that fail at that ideal. In that perfect world, a date would start not with calculated flirtation but random rendezvous at a river bank. It would sweeten not in a noisy night club but over a glass of wine amidst Chopin and candles. And its climax would mean not (heaven forbids) an orgasm, but parting lips and lingering eyes at the doorsteps underneath overflowing street light.

I like things as they are in (old) movies, so to speak. Hand-crafted presents, romantic scenery, public stunts–I relish them all.

So perhaps I am qualified to explain why romanticism is a mistake. A very grave one, indeed, but not in the way pragmatists often half pity, half ridicule us. Yes, like they say, life is just not rosy. But idealists know perfectly well how life is–we just do not let such pettiness weighs down how life should be. Yes, our idolization of ballades and roses is constructed. And perhaps gallantry or platonic love is not “real” in the biological and physical sense like sexual urge or self-interested instinct. But doesn’t that mean we need such illusions even more to cover our own shivering nakedness?

Indeed, if all love and life can ever be is like that–low, bare, and instinctual–then thank you, I would like to pass. After all, thà chết đói chứ không ăn mì gói is as much my bachelor’s credence as it is my gastronomical motto. There is no need to warn us that life would fail our high taste, for we know that already, and we are not scared.

And yet it is fair to say that we romantics tend to be unhappy. It is not so much because we fear the realist questioning, but because we are afraid of our own inconsistency. We reject their worldview so publicly, only to still find ourselves languishing  in a sort of private anxiety. Is it possible–apprehensively, we ask–that in a relentless pursuit of the true love ideal, of selflessness and sacrifice, of the forever and the unique, is it possible, um, that we end up being the most selfish and the least loving?

Sadly, yes, for there is the risk that we would fall in love with our own romantic ideals and not with our own beloved. We think so much about how our lovers should have been that we underappreciate how they are. We plan so much for how things could have been that we get upset often. In the name of true love we unlove our spouses for falling short of that ideal–we cannot forgive them for being unforgiving–we criticize them for being critical–and, at the slightest doubt that this thing may not last forever, we want to immediately abandon it.

This plague of romanticism inflicts variously, and I make it seem so grave only because I have been to the extreme of it. In real life, it is more subtle but no less common. Think about the last time you get upset with your girlfriend, the last time you are disappointed with your relationship, the last time you feel this isn’t worth it–aren’t they all because you held your conception of true love more dearly than love itself?

May I propose then, that we should fantasize a little less? Perhaps we should close that novel, switch off that drama, and turn to the ones we care to ask how their day was, even if they are most likely to wearily answer “nothing much,” even if they are most likely to look tired and annoyed, even if the relationship is most likely staying its mundane course and not taking a romantic turn.

Even if all of that can seem, um, so un-movie-like.

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4 comments
  1. quynh nguyen said:

    “romantics tend to be unhappy”, i can’t agree with you more.

    korean dramas destroy the real meaning of love by painting love wit the colour of romatic ideals and couples are obsessed with that. Truth be told, the more we grow up, the less romantic we are. Romance is an indispensable spice of the love soup at the beginning of any relationship, we feed relationship a certain amount at the right time, or the overdose will kill it.
    btw, how is your stay in norway?:D

    • anhqle said:

      It is true that we become less romantic when we grow up, but I think there are two shades of this same phenomenon. The first is a capitulation before “the harsh facts of life,” a conversion to realist thinking. This attitude is defeatist, and like I said, does not salvage us from the low and bare nature of physical, non-spiritual life.

      The second shade, however, is what we might call “enlightened romanticism.” The point isn’t that we should absolutely avoid doing things in movies in novels–indeed, if we embrace this goal, we simply adopt yet another ideal, another dogma, another preconception about love. Sometimes people like to think that they are progressively open-minded while they simply switch from one prejudice to another.

      Rather, the point is that we can (and should!) have all the fancy dinners and all the surprise-presents-on-ordinary-days that we’ve always enjoyed, but let’s not form any expectation about it. Expectation necessarily implies we have an ideal for love to strive towards. Just do it and enjoy whatever happens 🙂 That’s what it means to be “enlightened.”

      Norway is okay–fascinating scenery is always a plus. The course that I am in is an engineering/science one though, and thus not exactly my cup of tea. (I love science, but the theoretical sort.) I would love to learn more about the culture and the socioeconomic condition here instead of solar panel 😦

      Do you end up traveling? How’s summer looking for you? 🙂

      • quynh nguyen said:

        well, I must say I’m impressed by the second shade, I mean, the extremism is not working out in many cases, especially in the case of romanticism. Neither romance abstinence nor romance hedonism helps us live a joyful life. The balance is the most desirable, and your suggestion is that we should not form any expectation about it, let it happen naturally. I think it’s true but it’s not the easy thing to do. When a girl is in the relationship, she tends to expect a lot. Not to mention some guys cover their practical purposes by the pure romantic acts:(.

        your wordpress is so inspiring and thought-provoking. I can read it all day:)

        I’ll travel in June, everything is ready, but it’d be wonderful if I have advice from you abt your experience in Norway ( esp. the cutural matters, the habit and style…).

        when will u be back in vn, pls let me know:). Have a nice day!

        • anhqle said:

          Perhaps an easy way to not form too much expectation is to realize that, well, doing those crazy romantic stuff isn’t that difficult. Surprise present and candle lit dinner do not take that much thought and effort (standing in the street yelling I love you takes the least), and plus, can easily be faked. Keep smiling at your mate through ups and downs, when she seems bored as well as when she look attractive, is less glamorous, but much more difficult, and deserves to be considered a better test.

          Zen actually pivots on how to not form expectation–but that’s a bit too philosophical and radical for everyone 😀

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