the importance of heartbreak, and other things i learned from zooey deschanel

*spoilers ahead – read at own risk*

I remember the first time that I watched (500) Days of Summer.  It was 2010.  I was a sophomore in college, working overtime at a fast food restaurant, suffering from intense bouts of insomnia, and trying to piece together my heart after I’d foolishly mishandled it.  I was a wreck, and I sought relief in the form of late night film-watching, an activity that usually ended in dramatic heaving sobs of despair.

As you might guess, this did not help much.  In fact, it made the situation much worse than it should have been.  But to paraphrase Phil Collins from his interview with Starlee Kine for an episode of This American Life, I kind of liked feeling bad.  And when several of my friends recommended that I watch (500) Days of Summer, a film described as a quirky romantic comedy, I dove in headlong. I popped the DVD into my laptop, plugged in my headphones, and prepared to be devastated.

I was not disappointed.

If you haven’t seen the film, here’s a brief summary.

The plot centers around the offbeat relationship between Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), who meet each other while working at a small greeting card company. Tom quickly falls for Summer, declaring to his friends and his worldly teenage sister that she is The One, but Summer doesn’t feel the same way.  She doesn’t believe in labels, or relationships. Or even love.

It__s_love__not_Santa_Claus_by_readyinroleplayx

But this doesn’t stop Tom from pursuing Summer.  They enter into an on-again-off-again relationship that includes shopping for records and playing house in Ikea and sleeping together and fighting like cats and dogs, and Tom tries – and fails – to be okay with the casual nature of their arrangement.  After several months of this, Summer finally calls it quits, sending Tom into a spiral of despair.  He starts performing poorly at work, he sabotages his own blind dates, and he grows to despise Summer and everything that reminds him of her.

i hate this song

And then he runs into her again at a former coworker’s wedding, and they dance to “At Last,” and everything seems perfectly wonderful.  Summer even invites Tom to a party that she’s having later that week.  He lets his imagination run wild as he pictures her taking him back, but instead he finds himself embarrassed and alone.  He resents Summer for calling him out on settling for a job he despises instead of pursuing his dream of being an architect, and then as he drinks a beer alone by the edge of the roof he notices something he should have seen immediately – a whopping engagement ring on Summer’s finger – and he leaves.

expectations vs reality

After that, he quits his job and wallows in his own misery for a while, stumbling into convenience stores wearing a bathrobe to buy whiskey and snack cakes.  He finally gets out of bed and decides to start pursuing the career that he wants – he starts applying for jobs at architectural firms.  Before one of his interviews, he runs into Summer again, now a married woman, and he confronts her.  He doesn’t understand how she of all people, who didn’t even want to be someone’s girlfriend, became someone’s wife.

Her answer is simple, but somehow stabbing:

what i was never sure of

They part ways, and the movie ends with Tom asking a girl out to coffee.  Her name?  Autumn.

Yes, yes, cue the groans.

That first viewing over four years ago, I sobbed until my eyes literally could not produce any more tears and my head pounded like you wouldn’t believe.  Like I said before, it devastated me.  It was a tragedy.  I failed to see how in the world it could be classified as romantic or comedic.  And most subsequent viewings, I’ve had the same reaction.

But a few days ago, I curled up on the couch with my husband to watch it, and you know what? I did not shed a single tear.  In fact, I spent the entire time laughing.  I honestly felt like I was watching a completely different movie, and I’ve been pondering over that for days, trying to figure out what could be the reason.

The answer?  When I first watched the movie, I was Tom.  I was in one of the most raw states that I have ever been in.  I was wallowing over what I perceived to be a broken heart, crushed by my disappointment in the idea of someone that I really hadn’t even known – like Tom.  I was doggedly convinced that, even though this person and I had only superficial things in common, that he was somehow The One – like Tom.  And I simply refused to get over it for months and months and months – like Tom.

Even my several subsequent viewings, long after I finally dragged myself out of self pity and quickly entered into a healthy relationship which blossomed very quickly into marriage, I found myself feeling at least a little sad when Summer ended things with Tom.  I cried at least once every single time.  In fact, when I picked that movie to watch a few days ago, my husband rolled his eyes and said “You just need a good cry, don’t you?”  And that was true.  But the funny thing is, this time, I didn’t cry.

I laughed.

I laughed because for the first time, I saw all the things that I should have seen from the get-go. I saw the wisdom in the warnings that Tom’s friends and sister presented to him.

I have actually found myself offering an edited version of this gem to friends I felt were making poor decisions in the area of love.

I saw that Tom completely ignored the fact that Summer didn’t believe in love, didn’t believe in relationships, didn’t want to put a label on whatever it was that they were doing, and didn’t share his life goals. Again. And again, and again, so many times that I wanted to scream at the television – “You’re just being pathetic! Stop holding on to something that isn’t there!”

But I couldn’t.  Because I was bowled over with laughter.

But the real thing I got out of this very out-of-the-ordinary (for me) viewing of (500) Days of Summer was the message that we should embrace our mistakes, in romance and in other areas of life, because they have a way of propelling us forward onto the path that we are meant to take.

If Tom hadn’t had his…fling, relationship, obsession, whatever you’d like to call it…with Summer, he probably would never have quit his job (which it’s obvious from the beginning that he hates).  He would have never entertained the possibility of pursuing architecture as a career once more, and subsequently, would have never met Autumn, who is presumably his true One.

If I hadn’t had a string of crushes on boys, and later, men, who were objectively speaking, completely and totally wrong for me, I would have never had an idea of what I was actually looking for in a real live partner. I would have never stopped expecting a sparkling Roman god to step out of the pages of a romance novel, a bouquet of roses and a book of sonnets in his hands.  I would have never even given the man who turned out to be my husband a second glance, because he is not (however much I love him) a sparkling Roman god with a bouquet of roses and a book of sonnets in his hands.  I would have never found myself challenged to better myself emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually, as I find myself now.  I would have been a worse version of myself.

Breakups of any kind stink, whether an actual relationship dissolves or the idyllic dreams of a crush are – well – crushed. It’s so tempting in that moment to want to cling to the dregs of whatever was once there, to imagine what would have happened if everything hadn’t fallen apart.

But you have to face the facts sooner or later – they did fall apart.  And most likely, although it doesn’t seem probable now, they fell apart for a reason.  There are greater things to come in your life, dear reader with a nasty case of broken heart. You will not have that person that you cared for deeply, or dare I say even loved – but I have no doubt in my mind that because of what has happened, you will be presented with someone or something even better than you could have imagined.  And I hope when that day comes, you can look back over your days of despair and chuckle a little, thinking “I get it now, God.  Thank you.  I really needed that.”

And now I’m just rambling, so it’s time to sign off before this gets any weirder.  Until next time.

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