I’m no John Cusack.
I once believed in manifesting an ideal life by recreating scenes from John Cusack films.
I foresaw a future free of the clutches of the machine in the words of Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler, vowing never “to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career.”
Resembling a Renaissance icon, this patron saint of good guys hoists a boombox heavenward, hoping to win Ione Skye’s Diane back with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” I was converted, baptized by the ballad.
If I faithfully played the part of Say Anything John Cusack, life at least owed me a future resembling Serendipity John Cusack.
When I want to be provocative in an otherwise friendly conversation, I send this idea flying through the room like a punctured balloon: Romantic comedies cause more harm than pornography.
No need to poke the obvious holes in my argument. One remains a spiritual wasteland with a long history of debasement and abuse. The other sells positively lovely stories that usher us from moviehouses humming happy tunes.
The truth remains—those romcoms stick us with a false bill of goods.
Romantic comedies and dreamy dramas fixated me, folding me into a world where love occurred at first sight, time was marked through musical montages, and persistence ranked chief among virtues.
Living by the laws of celluloid love stories, my life eventually turned into a John Cusack scene—Rob Gordon’s lament from High Fidelity:
“Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery, and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
No one worried about me watching dozens and dozens of love stories brimming with exaggerated emotions, convenient confessions, and starry-eyed finales. They let me fast forward to the good parts, then rewind to retrace the swell of the strings as leading men saw leading ladies across a crowded room and cried, “Wait!”
Maybe other kids could handle scene after sentimental scene, but not me. I couldn’t make up the difference between real life and what I saw on screen.
Other than growing to my full height by junior high, my lot lies with the late bloomers. With no serious dating experience by the time I finished high school, I felt sure Christian college would deliver the love of my life. When I failed to meet “the one” by the end of week one, I took matters into my hands, leafing through pages from the romantic-comedy playbook. I gently manipulated situations to create meet-cutes that were anything but. I made premature declarations of love I couldn’t take back or back up.
When relationships failed to work within ninety minutes and an all-is-well framework, I panicked. In movie math, a fight equals a breakup. Minor disputes left me rudderless. At my lowest, amid the ruins of breathy promises, I drove by my ex-girlfriend’s house, checking up on her like the poor bastard in that Gin Blossoms song.
I felt more, felt stronger, felt deeper, than anyone around me—or so I believed. But I left an emotional sacrifice at the altar time and again, and wondered why God was unmoved.
For too long, I looked back—all these moments occuring more than fifteen years ago—cringed, then chalked up the bridges burned to a youthful fascination with fire. Only upon cresting my twenties and entering my thirties did I feel the pangs of conviction and repentance: The persistence I prized wasn’t persistence at all, but a violation of space and personhood.
I once felt tricked into occupying every so-called friend zone. Now I see I built them myself, from lumber sold to me by a culture that knows almost nothing about how to treat women.
I still love that Peter Gabriel song but, these days, winning someone sounds more like an aberration than an aspiration. Women aren’t prizes; they’re image-bearers.
Even though I never violated anyone’s consent, I placed a shoulder underneath toxic forms of manhood, propping them up. I never felt masculine enough, forceful enough, to view myself as a hazard. I belonged with the good guys, the sensitive types, the unsung heroes. If toxic masculinity were a musical genre I perched at the piano time and again, belting out its power ballads.
My ways were not the ways of someone firmly grasping how to love people and trust God.
I always cast myself in the lead role, relying on manic pixie dream girl-types to advance my story. My pursuit of love masked a lack of love for other children of God. I saw women as obstacles to or objects of my fulfillment. More than a few girls’ names sat above God’s on the movie poster of my life.
I want to say all my wrong thinking turned right before meeting my wife. Instead I knew just enough to know how wrong I was.
But God introduced me to someone with zero interest in the rites of movie love. She wouldn’t be stuck in a supporting role, advancing my plotline. If I sat down today and made a list titled “Reasons Women Exist,” advancing my story wouldn’t even crack the Top 100.
Somehow she invested faith in me while pressing on my bruises, winning me to a better way, to the sort of mutuality that only happens off-screen.
Thirteen years into our marriage, I daily unlearn the lessons and language of romantic comedies. I don’t hear strings when she enters the room. She hates when I move slow to kiss her, as if we’re in a close-up. I fight to believe a disagreement looms only as large as the matter being contested. With God’s infinite patience, and hers, I should be reprogrammed in another twenty to twenty-five years.
Sadly, friends of mine never left the cult, dashing marriages against the rocky coast of unmet expectations.
Now I want to see a different movie, one most studios aren’t making. I am co-writing a script in which steady joys outpace moments of high drama and over-eager romance. Where passion still permeates, growing hotter, deeper, richer, in the presence of words that don’t play well on screen, words like safety and forbearance.
The freedom to play against type testifies to a grace kind enough to show us our faults, and strong enough to carry us away from them. A love story untapped by creatives, yet supremely interesting to a Creator, is the one I want to watch unfold.