Like many, over the holidays this year I got around to rewatching Love Actually. I’ll be straightforward: I have no stake in the great Love Actually internet debate. I think it’s a fine film. It makes me laugh. It makes me cry. And that’s pretty much the extent of my feelings on the matter…except for one scene.
My favorite moment in this film (and maybe even in any movie ever) has Emma Thompson, crying in her upstairs bedroom, processing the newly discovered knowledge that her husband is having an affair, all while Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” simmers in the background.
I usually watch this scene with teary eyes while whispering silent “thank yous” that we get to live in a world where Emma Thompson exists. But after 2016, this scene resonated with me a little differently.
As I watched this confident, intelligent individual – so snug in her secure world – placidly come to the realization that that world is slowly and drastically changing around her, I couldn’t help but think – “Good grief. That’s America.”
I am not blind to the irony of comparing a distinctly British character in a distinctly British film to the United States of America. But think about it. Be they a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or moderate, so many Americans have felt like Emma Thompson this past year: scared of unfolding change; saddened by the fragility of an institution; nervous about an uncertain future; and so shocked by the snowballing pace of it all that they hardly know how to put one foot in front of the other, let alone cope and get their kids to the Christmas play on time.
And those lyrics. “I've looked at love from both sides now,” Joni croons. “From give and take and still somehow, it’s love’s illusions I recall. I really don't know love at all.” When two neighbors cannot understand the needs and wants of the other; when entire communities feel unheard and unwanted; when trust cannot be trusted….maybe the best of America is an illusion. Yes, Joni. Maybe we really don’t know America at all.
The holidays are pretty much behind us. Presents have been opened, turkeys have been consumed, and Hugh Grant has danced himself down the staircase at 10 Downing Street. Still, I haven’t been able to shake these lyrics or this scene out of my head. Perhaps because, well, I’ve been looking at “both sides of love” my whole life. Literally.
My father is a Democrat. My mother is a Republican. In addition to being a great first-date anecdote, that is one of the most significant truths about me. In so many ways, their marriage - their difficult, strong, beautiful marriage - has shaped how I see, approach and tackle the world.
For 33 years my parents have cohabitated with someone they rudimentarily and viscerally disagree with. And for 26 of those years, I’ve had a front row seat. I have seen perfectly pleasant Sunday night dinners end in bitter tears of frustration. I have seen (and taken part in) polite political chatter that explodes into all-out shouting matches. I have seen doors slammed. I have seen walks around the block to cool off. And I have seen many, many election nights viewed in separate rooms.
But I have also seen apologies. I have seen empathy. I have seen compromise. I have seen sobering Monday mornings where opinions are not swayed, but graciously given. I have seen more “agree to disagrees” than I can count. Most importantly, I have seen decades of profound respect.
Even in the hardest moments, both my parents have been able to recognize and respect each other’s strengths. My mother, an accountant, is our family CFO. Any financial security we have is because of her fierce protective instincts and even fiercer intelligence. My father, a Lutheran minister, is our emotional and moral watchman. His wisdom is incomparable. Chat with him just once, and I promise he’ll be the first person you want to ring the next time you’re having, as he puts it, an A.F.G.E. – another, well, let’s say “flipping” growth experience.
My father’s mind is not budgetary. My mother’s is not theological. And yet, by relying on the other, they’ve built a purposeful partnership – the result of which is a functional, fruitful and rather beautiful life.
Now, I am not so naïve to think that politicians and their constituents can look to my parents’ marriage and solve our country’s problems. I realize there are things that can unify a marriage, but not a country - children, for one. Also, love and romance. Hobbies and pets. Joint bank accounts. TCU football. Downton Abbey.
But still, I can’t help but think that there is something there. That if even in our worst moments, at the thin border between conflict and acrimony, if we can see - and respect - what our adversaries bring to the table that we cannot, then maybe they will cease to be our adversaries. Maybe they will become our partners.
After a year of black lives lost, of blue lives lost, of insults and elections and ideological bubbles … I feel profound sadness for my country. More sadness than I feel for Emma Thompson, in fact. In this new year, as in every year before it, I will be looking to my parents’ marriage as a compass. And I will hope that America, like my mother and father, sees that, to survive, we must all look at both sides. Now.
Lauren Menking is the senior marketing coordinator at KERA.