With the arrival of the new year, many of us will take time to reflect on our accomplishments and experiences of the past twelve months and to look ahead into the future. There is a sense of hope that comes with the beginning of a new year: new goals, new dreams. A clean slate. We resolve to lose weight, to write more, to stay in touch with friends, to always fold the laundry as soon as it’s out of the dryer. We head into the first days of the new year with a list of items to check off in order to make ourselves better.
And this is good. Because the fact of the matter is that you (and me, and everyone else) ought to strive to become better. Many popular culture media preach a different message, however: that we are perfect just the way we are, and that we shouldn’t feel a need to change ourselves. Romantic comedies, sitcoms, and the like apply this message to romance, telling us that if we are to find someone to love, we should find someone who never wants us to change and who believes we are perfect, because that is the hallmark of true love.
I’ve written before about how Ted Mosby gets on my nerves. I’ve found that How I Met Your Mother, while decently funny, is full of sneaky half-truths about what good and healthy relationships (particularly, romantic relationships) are supposed to look like. Television in general, I’ve come to learn, tells us many lies, and HIMYM perpetuates a specific lie in it’s ongoing account of Ted’s journey to find true love: that the person you are meant to be with should be a perfect fit for you from the moment you meet, and that no change or improvement should be required of either of you during the course of the relationship.
At the beginning of HIMYM season eight, Ted has a surreal conversation with his girlfriend’s ex-fiancée about how you know if you’ve found your soul mate. The ex-fiancée, Klaus, tells Ted that there is a (fictional) German word that means “lifelong treasure of destiny.” Ted inquires as to whether or not a person could become that, more and more, over time. At this question, my heart dared to hope for a richer, more meaningful discussion of love and commitment, one that involves mutual sacrifice and growth rather than an unrealistic picture of perfection and ease.
That hope was quickly crushed, though, by Klaus’s definitive answer: no, absolutely not. “[It’s] not something that develops over time,” he says. “It’s something that happens instantaneously…if you have to think about it, you have not felt it.”
Christopher Orr wrote an excellent critique of Love Actually last month, arguing that the fundamental flaw of the film is how it presents love:
…as either absurdly easy—something that strikes you like a thunderclap and requires only a single grand gesture in order to be fulfilled—or all but impossible. Notably absent is the idea that love might ever be worth a little sustained effort: some mutual exploration and discovery, a bit of care and nurture, maybe even the overcoming of an obstacle or two.
HIMYM, it seems, shares this flaw in its presentation of love. This is a pretty grim message, for a couple of reasons (that do not apply singly to romance).
First, it implies that if there is any indication that you and the person you are in a relationship with are not totally perfect for each other (let alone the question of how you’re supposed to discern said “perfection”) then you should call it quits. This completely undermines most wisdom I’ve heard from people in long-term, committed relationships: that it is difficult, that sometimes it sucks, that you will get angry and frustrated, and that it requires constant and mutual work, sacrifice, and humility to be successful and lasting. Yet I myself have been affected by the lies about love propagated by popular culture (HIMYM and Love Actually being two examples), feeling the fear creep in during difficult moments in my marriage. Maybe I’m not perfect enough for my husband, I’ve wondered. Maybe he would be happier with someone else. I don’t think I need to elaborate on how poisonous this kind of thinking can be, both to one’s self-esteem and to the relationship as a whole.
Of course, the most effective lies are mixed with truth, and the message of HIMYM, I believe, stems from a good place: a desire to find happiness, to be accepted, and to be loved unconditionally. You shouldn’t be with someone who doesn’t like you, has nothing in common with you, or wants you to change who you are completely, but that’s just common sense. You also shouldn’t be with someone who worships you as a perfect being capable of bestowing every happiness upon them, which is what I think the show is really saying when characters express their desire to find “the one.” If anyone pulled a Love Actually on me with the line, “To me, you are perfect,” my response would be, “You obviously don’t know me that well, do you?” Unconditional love and the need for growth and change are not mutually exclusive.
The second reason this is a disastrous message is that it lets us off the hook regarding self-improvement. It encourages pride and ego rather than humility and servitude: if someone tells me I need to change, that’s their problem, not mine. True love doesn’t require change, at least not according to popular culture.
One lesson I’ve learned this year is that, as an adult, I alone am responsible for my own self-improvement. When parents and professors are no longer constantly around to keep us on track, it’s up to us to keep moving forward. This year I’ve been mulling over the realization that if I stop trying to get better, the only alternative is that I’ll get worse. I suppose you could say that a second alternative is just stagnation, but “stagnant” and “worse” seem equivalent. Living life well and in a way that makes us better is difficult, but we can’t give up on it because the alternatives are far worse than the effort required to succeed.
So while HIMYM and other pop culture examples like to tell us that we should just be ourselves and embrace who we are, because we are “perfect” as-is (maybe not for everyone, but certainly for our “one”), we must temper that with a dose of humility and accept that we are imperfect beings in need of improvement. This is the sanctification of loving human relationships: not that we achieve everlasting happiness through our own personal “perfect” match, but that we choose to be burdens on each other, ultimately sharing the different kind of joy that comes from learning and growing together in spite of our many flaws and the inevitable challenges we will face. When you love someone, it’s just what you do, and that is the real hallmark of truly loving relationships.
In a romantic relationship, people can become better for each other and more unified over time, growing deeper in love and intimacy as the years go by thanks to all of the shared experiences and learning that takes place. So I think Ted’s question regarding the possibility of becoming better over time is closer to the truth: we are still becoming who we are meant to be. We are works in progress, not yet perfected. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
All of this is not to say that we should hate ourselves or feel worthless; on the contrary, every human being is an image-bearer of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and inherently valuable and loved by their Creator. This humility, then, should be adopted not along with despair, but with the recognition of our God-given value as humans and the saving, sanctifying grace of Christ that is freely offered and promised to us. We are imperfect, but our Father continually works to perfect us. We must participate in that work—through spiritual exercises like prayer and fasting, but also through the everyday routines and decisions that shape us—always remembering that we do not work alone. We shouldn’t try to become some other person entirely whom we believe to be better than who we are. We should resolve to continually try to become better versions of ourselves.
Be yourself, surely, but make yourself better.