In the 2010 movie, “How Do You Know,” Reese Witherspoon plays a 30-year-old champion women’s softball player who’s suddenly thrust into the next phase of her life. Paralleling her challenges are similar ones haunting Paul Rudd’s character, who’s dealing with an overload of real-world shocks and uncertainty about whom he can trust.
What makes the movie so interesting to me is that the characters’ choices are not clear-cut. Witherspoon’s other possible love-interest is played by Owen Wilson, and he’s a nice, if sort of clueless guy, who genuinely likes her and wants to make her happy. Why would she pick one over the other?
And, when you’ve lost your work-identity, your basic social cred, who is the “you” that you’re hoping the other person will fall in love with?
I remember when people and choices in my life seemed more black-and-white. This person scared me or had values I disagreed with. That person aligned with my needs and my opinions. Keep one, throw out the other. But as I got older, I realized that if you’re fully engaged with life, most people and situations lie in a continuum of grey tones. Each has positive and negative qualities, and we learn to accept that life is not so neat and tidy.
“How Do You Know” is a reminder that these kinds of questions persist throughout life. It’s not only a newly-retired older person who wonders who he or she is, now that the job or title or income isn’t there to support their identity.
In fact, such mysteries can originate at the very beginning of life. In Jumping the Broom, a 2011 movie about events leading up to the wedding of a couple from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds, Paula Patton, the young, privileged bride-to-be, seems unerringly certain about what she expects from her future husband, her wedding, and her new life. As the story progresses, her identity starts to totter as if balanced on six inch spikey heels.
In the end, the decisions she and her fiance make in Jumping the Broom have more to do with the essential character they see in each other. Their question about each other is the same one that Reese Witherspoon asks about Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson: Who can I trust to be in my corner when the going gets rough? Who will love me for how I deal with life’s curve balls?
Making smart choices is hard enough when we see others clearly. Complicating the whole process is the variety of human personalities and communication styles. Who we see is not always who we get. How someone was in the past may, or may not be a fair judge of how they’ve evolved through years of life experience.
As I’ve come to understand in my own life, we never have all the answers. Every choice is a matter of doing the best we can with limited information available to us at the time. And, always, to celebrate our victories and forgive ourselves for the inevitable disappointments along the way.