Wednesday, October 23, 2019

5 Lessons We Can All Learn From Modern Love [Contributor: Jenn]

Love is messy.

And I’m not just talking about romantic love (though that is, in my experience, messy). I’m talking about the act of loving another person — a significant other, child, friend, parent or stranger. Love is messy because it requires sacrifice. We give, with open hands and hearts, knowing that our love may not be reciprocated. And even if it is, we give risking someone breaking our trust or crushing that love.

Like I said, love is messy. Because people are messy.

Amazon Prime’s Modern Love is an anthology based on a popular column from The New York Times of the same name. Throughout eight episodes, we witness all kinds of love between individuals. And through these little windows into love, we learn something about ourselves and the people around us.

I won’t pretend that Modern Love is a flawless TV series (tbh for a series set in diverse New York, there sure are a lot of white people), but what I will say is that it deeply touched me and I feel like there are quite a few lessons we can apply from its stories.

I’ll be sharing the plot of most of the episodes below (fair warning, I didn’t make it through more than five minutes of “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” but the good news is that you too can skip it and it won’t make much of a difference at all!), so this is your spoiler warning. Ready? Let’s dive in.

Lesson #1: Platonic Love is Powerful

The first episode, “When the Doorman is Your Main Man” is probably the most deeply touching (save for the finale) of Modern Love starring Cristin Milioti and Laurentius Possa. Milioti plays Maggie, a young book editor and Possa plays her doorman, Guzmin. The two have a lovely platonic relationship: he looks out for her best interests, and she confides in him. The relationship never develops into romance, but I think that’s what makes this particular episode so important: love isn’t always romantic.

Platonic love can be as powerful as romantic love.

Maggie never feels judged or shamed by Guzmin. He never chides or taunts her; he always reminds her that he’s there and will support her no matter what. Her life is hers to decide, but he’ll tell her in a gentle, loving way when she’s too good for a guy.

Platonic love is often overlooked in television these days in favor of romantic love. That’s not to say one should always take precedence over another, but there’s something powerful about knowing that on Grey’s Anatomy, Alex will always be there to support Meredith and romance won’t be on the table.

Similarly in Modern Love, Maggie knows that she can count on someone who has no hidden agenda, no ulterior motives, and wants nothing but her happiness. There’s something so pure and unhindered about Guzmin’s love for Maggie. We watch him help her raise her daughter and push her out of her comfort zone to move to Los Angeles. Guzmin isn’t jealous, condescending, or selfish.

He’ll always be there with an umbrella. He’ll help Maggie because he loves her. And it’s beautiful.

Lesson #2: Self-Love Love Demands the Truth

“Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am” is a powerful episode in which Anne Hathaway (long live my Queen of Genovia) stars. This episode tells the story of Lexi, a lawyer who we learn, about half-way through the episode, is bipolar. But no one knows Lexi is bipolar or that she’s struggled with her condition since she was a teenager. She’s tried everything under the sun to help, but Lexi is locked in a prison of her own making: her silence and shame.

So she bounces from job to job, claiming she likes moving on. She pushes away potential romantic suitors, including Jeff (played by Gary Carr) whom she meets at a grocery store during a manic episode. Lexi goes through multiple, heartbreaking manic and depressive bouts throughout “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am.” Anne Hathaway does a wonderful job conveying the utter pain and frustration when Lexi is hit with an intense bout of depression as she puts on mascara for a date.

But the most powerful lesson we can glean from the episode is that love, especially self-love, demands honesty. We can’t truly love ourselves or others if we’re not honest with who we are, what we struggle with, and what we want. I’ve been in relationships and have watched friends’ relationships fall apart because one person is too afraid to let down their walls and let others in. Shame is a door we lock from the inside, believing that if anyone saw who we were — the ugly, painful, secretive stuff — that they wouldn’t love us. The truth is that the reason we hide is because WE don’t love those parts of ourselves. Until we learn to stare our insecurities, doubts, pasts, and shadowy parts in the eye and accept them, we’re just running.

I’ve seen what running and hiding does to a relationship. I’ve watched people crumble before my eyes because they can’t accept who they are, or what they’ve done. They can’t come to grips with the fact that they’re broken and messy so they put up walls and only let other people see them a certain way. I once dated a guy who said he never cried in public; he wouldn’t let anyone, not even his close friends and certainly not strangers, see him weep. He hid his emotions. He hid his brokenness. And that might not cost him dearly in the short-term (we never think we’ll have to pay a price), but it will in the long-term.

Love, at the very least, is sitting across the table and saying, “You’re not okay. I won’t try to fix you. I’ll just sit here in your brokenness with you.” And that’s what happens to Lexi. Her friend and colleague won’t let her be alone in her brokenness, but she also doesn’t pry or force herself or her expectations onto her. Slowly, Lexi opens up. And shame dissipates. Not permanently. Not forever. But something cracks and the light begins to pour in.

Self-love demands we take a hard look at the parts of ourselves we don’t like, and acknowledge that they’re present. They exist. Whether we choose to love or hate ourselves really does affect how we love others. We can pretend it doesn’t, and we can shove our emotions, insecurities, and self-doubt way down deep, pretending we’re fine. Pretending we’re not flawed.

But true self-love thrives when we’re honest with our shortcomings and issues. Admitting our cracks helps us step out of shame and into a light where we feel free to tell our stories, truthfully, to others we can trust. It allows us to get the help we need. And it also allows others to open up about their own struggles. Vulnerability begets vulnerability.

Self-love opens the door to all kinds of deep, meaningful connection. And I love that Modern Love focused on this through Lexi’s story.

Lesson #3: Romantic Love is Work

I thought I was going to skip “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive.” Not because I dislike Tina Fey (quite the opposite), but because the subject matter seemed too tense and real. A majority of Modern Love’s fourth episode is devoted to a sparring married couple; their relationship is on the brink of divorce. Sarah (Fey) and Dennis (John Slattery) can’t communicate or agree on anything. They’re fighting. Their kids are fighting. The couple is going to counseling but it’s not sticking. Even when the counselor tells them to find an activity to do together, they fight. They use tennis to wound each other. And Sarah’s breaking point, it seems, is when she snaps at one of her husband’s fans (he’s an actor) at dinner.

What I love about this episode is the thing I thought I’d hate: its realism. Often, we turn to romantic movies or television shows for escapism. We dream of what could be while fleeing from what’s happening in our real lives. “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive” is an apt title, because Sarah and Dennis finally hit a point in their marriage where they have to decide if they’re going to be honest and vulnerable or keep avoiding and shutting down. Both choose unhealthy ways of processing their emotions (Sarah gravitates toward anger while Dennis chooses to be emotionally distant or physically absent).

The turning point is when Sarah lays down her anger in favor of emotional vulnerability, and Dennis chooses to sit in the discomfort of the moment instead of checking out or running away. It’s a painful, but necessary, reminder that love is work. It’s a choice. It’s not something we’re innately programmed to do. We’re programmed to run, to hurt when we’ve been hurt, to fight back. Dennis’ apology where he doesn’t excuse his behavior or try to pin blame is so significant.

Sarah puts down her armor. Dennis apologizes. That’s it. That’s not the end of all their issues, but the start of their next step. And the beginning of an actual choice — to pursue their marriage.

Love is work, friends. Love is hard, hard work. And it’s forgiveness (within reasons, of course: don’t let anyone make you confuse abuse with love) when it can be, and tentative steps forward in trust.

Love can be good. But boy is it hard.

Lesson #4: Love is a Choice, Over and Over Again

People often tell us that love is a feeling, but that’s only partially true. Real, lasting love is a choice. A daily surrender. A constant decision that’s day by day and sometimes moment by moment. I dated a guy once who had a lot of emotional baggage and issues loving himself. As a result, he believed that love was a thing that was supposed to make him feel good. When he loved someone, he’d feel it and everything would fall into place; he’d love himself if someone else loved him first. Maybe I’ve been deprogrammed because of rom-coms but I told him that love is a decision you make even when you DON’T feel good about yourself or the person you care about.

A few episodes in Modern Love demonstrate the fact that love is a choice (one of them is the “Rallying” episode I noted above), but perhaps none more than “When Cupid is a Prying Journalist.” I adored this episode, and not just because it featured Dev Patel, who needs to star in all the rom-coms possible. I enjoyed it because it featured a realistic look at what it takes to make love work. It showed relationships falling apart, and the consequences of peoples’ decisions or indecision. Patel plays Joshua, creator of a dating app. He’s interviewed by a journalist named Julie (played by Catherine Keener) about the aforementioned app. In the process, the two strike up a friendship as they share stories of lost loves.

The conversation spurs both to reach out and take a chance on a love that they thought they’d left behind. Joshua’s relationship with his ex rekindles, and Julie’s relationship with her what-might-have-been doesn’t ever leave the ground. But the encounter leads them both to make decisions: Julie ends her stalled marriage, while her might-have-been decides to make it work with his wife. And Joshua professes his love, via Julie’s article, for his ex.

Finding or losing love isn’t the end of the story (a fact that’ll be reiterated in the season’s final episode), but it is a choice. Julie, Joshua, and every other character in this episode had to choose something: whether to end a relationship, forgive, or fight to keep love alive. Their choices were intentional, and I think that was really important to witness.

(Additionally, “Hers Was a World of One” features a beautiful display of this theme in its depiction of a found family. Tobin and Andy decide to adopt the newborn of a surrogate named Karla who’s young, homeless, and a lot to handle. The couple makes room for her in their lives and realizes how complex relationships, families, and preconceived notions of people can be. They choose to love her, even when she’s hard to love. And she chooses to connect with them emotionally even though it’s easier to do life alone.)

Lesson #5: True Love Moves Us to Action

“Talk is cheap.” 

“Actions speak louder than words.”

As much as we hate clichés, there’s a reason they exist: there’s truth in them. And clichés like the ones above hold one important truth about love: love, any love, demands action. Every episode in Modern Love depicts love being an action, a choice, and a thing someone does.

True love pushes us to keep changing and evolving — no matter what kind of love you’re talking about. “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap” is Modern Love’s season finale, and I love it for a lot of reasons: it nicely ties stories together through the season, it focuses on new love found in an elderly couple, and it’s hopeful. The finale tells the story of Margot (Jane Alexander) and Kenji (James Saito) who meet one another at a race. Margot invites Kenji to join the running club she belongs to, and the two strike a kinship that turns into love. They’ve both experienced a lot in life by the time they meet, including loss. But, as Margot says at Kenji’s funeral, new love in old age is something truly special.

Margot decides to walk home from the service rather than take a car, and as she walks, she passes runners. Something stirs within her and she begins to jog, clearly feeling freedom and joy. As she jogs and cars pass, the audience witnesses glimpses of the other storylines we hadn’t gotten before: of Karla meeting Tobin and Andy for the first time, of Guzmin walking home with Maggie in the rain, of Joshua running into Julia and her new flame, and Dennis and Sarah playing tennis in the rain.

All the while, life is moving. Love is still all around (I’m sorry, I just had to sneak in that reference somehow), and Margot is still running. But she’s not running AWAY from feeling; she’s running TO it. She’s not slowing down, even though she loved Kenji. She’s acting because she loved him.

In Modern Love, we see characters act out of love for each other more than we hear “I love you” uttered. That’s so important. And it’s something we can learn from.


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