A few weeks ago, Matthew and I sat down and watched one of my all-time favorite movies for the first time in years, I think for the first time since having kids. Almost Famous is about a young kid who gets the opportunity to follow one of his favorite bands and write a story about them for Rolling Stone. I’ve watched it close to ten times, and it contains some of my favorite lines ever, from the flippant “It’s all happening” that I’ve morphed into a one-size-fits-all expression and use in sarcasm or excitement, to the genuinely moving quote by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” I loved everything about this movie, from the music, to the dreamy Penny Lane, to the flawed but oh-so-cool Russell, to the coming of age of William and the fantasy of getting to roam the world in this alternate reality of writing and music. I mean, it’s a magical movie. It paints this picture of people who are doing what they want, regardless of what the established norms are. That really resonated with me.
It’s just a little different watching it as a mom, with a little more life experience. It’s still an amazing movie, but it was jarring to watch after such a long lapse. Matthew and I were so horrified by the fact that Penny Lane is maybe only 16 that it almost made it impossible to finish the movie. I mean, I knew that when I first watched it, but when you’re 18 and think you’re so grownup, it’s easy to think there are exceptions to rules and that you could totally be in a mutual relationship with an age gap like that. Russell became less complicated artist (“the band’s holding me back”) and more self-absorbed narcissist who wanted adulation and “inspiration” rather than self-awareness and growth, despite his ability to spin words to the contrary. It’s a movie, like life, full of people using other people to thinly mask their sadness at best, abusing and hurting each other at worst.
I stuck with it and finished the movie, and found the ending even more powerful than I remembered it. I didn’t want the stereotypical happy ending even when I watched it before kids and maturity colored my perception, but it was so much more meaningful when I realized that for each main character, the ending signified a major step toward personal growth independent of some outside person, without which I don’t believe happiness is possible.
So then a couple days ago on a daytrip I read a book called This One is Mine, by Maria Semple. Semple is a gifted writer whose book Where’d You Go, Bernadette I really enjoyed. This book is an earlier work. It was a good but tough read, so difficult that I almost quit halfway through when various characters were having affairs, aborting babies, and punching trees. So much need, so little real connection, and a complete lack of self-awareness all around that I found myself spiraling sympathetically. But once I put the kids to bed, I finished it and again, was so glad I did.
Each character had to dig deep within her- or him-self to figure out how to be happy, which for one meant going to rehab and not being able to fix the damage she caused, but finally being able to be real with and content in herself. For another it meant marital reconciliation was actually possible because neither partner was looking to the other for fulfillment anymore.
Both of these, book and movie, got me thinking. So much grief and disconnect, abuse and exploitation happens as a result of us acting out of emptiness. We feel a need or a sadness or anger and sooner or later someone will enter our life and seemingly present the answer. You want inspiration and connection? Here’s this young girl who gives that to you. You want to be a writer? Here’s this band who will let you come on the road with them. You feel this malaise and lack of purpose and excitement with your family life? Here’s this poet musician who makes you feel alive and seen for the first time in years.
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work. It never, ever works.
It doesn’t work because any time we’re interacting with people out of our own emptiness, we are taking advantage of them, and when we’re taking advantage we are not meaningfully connecting. We feel this inherently, when people are using us in this way. I’ve been on the receiving end of both adulation and the attempt to take more from the relationship than it could or should offer, and neither was at all pleasant. Both caused me extreme amounts of anxiety, in fact. I knew when something was wrong, even before I had the experience to identify it like I (hopefully) do now. Sometimes when we use each other, the damage is overt, like when the rocker in his thirties takes the young teen to bed. Sometimes it’s less obvious, like the marriage where each partner resents the other more over time, simply because they can’t actually make you happy. Nobody can.
Our schemes for dragging our own happiness out of other people always backfire, and when they do, it’s an opportunity for growth. This movie and book played out dramatically what your life is probably already hinting: that your emptiness can’t be fixed by another person. Happy, healthy relationships between equal parties can only exist when both people are whole on their own. Are you feeling discontent? Are you feeling unseen and unfulfilled? Look inside, friend. Stay there awhile.