Last week I went and saw Celeste and Jesse Forever in the theater by myself. I do that sometimes, so there’s no need to feel sorry for me. This movie was really fascinating, because even though it was marketed as an indie dramedy, it struck me as a potent case study in breaking up and letting go. A brief synopsis: Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have been married for six years, but as they both approach 30, Celeste decides that they should get divorced. All of their friends are weirded out because even after being separated for six months, Celeste and Jesse still live together and hang out together all the time as if getting divorced wasn’t a big deal, to which they reply that they’re still best friends even though their marriage is over, and why shouldn’t they still hang out? That line of thinking works great until Jesse starts dating another woman pretty seriously, at which point Celeste struggles to hide her palpable jealousy and starts questioning whether or not she made a mistake in asking for a divorce. Much drama and hilarity ensue.
Maybe this wasn’t the intention of the filmmakers at all, but throughout the entirety of the film, the question that kept returning to the forefront of my mind was “Why is it so hard to let go?” In the beginning of the film, we see Jesse struggle to let go of the slim possibility that Celeste will change her mind and call off the divorce, and once he starts dating someone else, Celeste can’t let go either, even though she’s the one who wanted a divorce in the first place. Are we all crazy people for not being able to let go? Yes and no, probably. Obviously I am no expert on such things, but watching my friends go through break-ups and surviving a monster break-up myself, there are certain things I’ve observed that seem particularly Truthy.
One, change is hard for a lot of people, and even more than that, oftentimes it’s even harder to accept the permanence of the decisions you make that act as a catalyst for change. When you break-up with someone or divorce someone, usually that decision lasts forever. But what if you made the wrong decision? What if your life with this person is as good as it’s going to get? What if you never love another person as much as you love this person, or worse, what if you never find another person who loves you like this person does? If that turns out to be true, then you will have no one to blame but yourself, and no one wants to have to live with the knowledge that they have ruined their own life. When Celeste starts second-guessing herself and her decision to get divorced, she turns into a crazy person who does crazy desperate things in an attempt to hold onto the relationship that she’s afraid will slip out of her grasp. Why not just let go? Because letting go is forever, and the reality of forever is scary.
Two, there is a comfort in the familiarity of a relationship that is hard to imagine living without. When you’re with someone for a long time, you take for granted how much of your life is shared and how much your significant other informs your identity, and then when you break up, you have to rediscover who you are as an individual and relearn how to live your life alone. I can tell you from experience, that is the worst. And if that thought alone isn’t enough to keep you hanging on, just think about the agony of jumping back into dating again. Early in the movie when one of Jesse’s friends tells him he should start dating, Jesse says “Maybe I just don’t want to start over with someone new.” Years of work go into the foundation of a lasting relationship, from allowing yourself to truly know (and be known by) another person to accumulating layers of memories and inside jokes and shared experience, and when that relationship ends, it feels like all that work was for nothing. The mere thought of starting from square and attempting such an intensive and laborious undertaking with another person seems a positively insurmountable task.
Strangely enough, as I was driving home from this movie, “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley came on the radio, which, aside from being truly one of the greatest songs ever (D HEN 4 LYFE), is an amazingly poignant song about the struggle to let go. The song begins with imagery that reflects the speaker’s aloneness, from “empty lakes, empty streets” to “the sun goes down alone,” and then launches into that heartbreaking line “I’m driving by your house / though I know you’re not home.” He knows that “those days are gone forever” and that he should just let them go, but in spite of himself, he’s living in memories, not simply remembering but seeing his ex’s “brown skin shining in the sun” and her way of “walking real slow and / smiling at everyone.” It’s such a beautiful song, and it totally puts a lump in my throat every time I hear it.
It also, I think, hammers home the point that much of the difficulty of letting go is a signifier of real care. It wouldn’t be so hard to do if the person or relationship you’re trying to let go of didn’t mean something you. It’s like the five steps of the grieving process: you have to mourn, to work through your anger and fear and confusion, to honor what was once but is no longer, and accept the loss in order to move on with your life in peace. That’s the point of letting go, I think. Not to pretend that it never happened or to always feel regret, but to find a way to be at peace with loss. That probably sounds very zen, but it’s certainly easier said than done.