Serendipity, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, is one of best romantic movies ever made, in that it's incredibly heartwarming, with clever plotting and wonderful performances all around. And it's also one of the worst romantic movies ever made, in that it perpetuates a pernicious myth, namely that serendipity—a series of "fortunate accidents," as the word is defined in the film—is indicative of the universe acting out some master plan to bring two "soulmates" together (in this case, the characters played by Cusack and Beckinsale).
When I first watched Serendipity, soon after its release in 2001, I bought into this entire premise. (I was young—younger, at least.) But watching it last night, after ten years of life experience (that is, failed relationships), I see it rather differently. Rather than embracing the "predestined" love affair between Cusack and Beckinsale, this time I felt more for Cusack's bride (played by Bridget Moynahan). We aren't told anything about how their relationship developed, but we are left to presume that it involved traditional dating rather than a series of contrived happenstance—not as breathtakingly romantic as Cusack and Beckinsale's meeting, perhaps, but likely more deep and meaningful. But Moynahan's character loses the man she was to marry because he decides to chase after a series of cute but random coincidences in order to find a woman he'd shared a few charmed hours with years ago, rather than stay with the woman he'd come to love and cherish over time.
Perhaps, deep down, Cusack didn't want to marry Moynahan—as his best friend, played by Jeremy Piven, suggests after their search for Beckinsale hits an apparent dead-end the night before Cusack's wedding. His quest for Beckinsale could have been guided by his subconscious trying to reveal his hesitance toward the marriage. Maybe Cusack and Moynahan even had problems that we don't know about, but the filmmakers didn't suggest that, implying instead that they simply had a "normal" relationship while the promise of a "magical" one lingered in Cusack's mind since his one and only meeting with Beckinsale. The unsubtle point of the movie is that there is one true love for everyone, and if you miss that person, you are stuck with the "wrong" person (or a series of wrong persons) for the rest of your life. (Even Moynahan buys into this to some extent, asking Cusack, days before their wedding, to tell her that there is no one else in the world for him but her. He froze, naturally.)
But human beings are much more complex than this. We often meet a series of people over our lives, each of them right of us in different ways. If you meet one that is right for you in enough ways, you try to build a life with that person—until one or the other of you changes too much, and then the process starts again. Sometimes that person seems so right for you that you imagine he or she is the only person for you; you can't imagine anyone else being as right (much less more so), and you believe that you were meant for each other. Those feelings are fantastic, but we must be careful not to put the cart before the horse: this person is right for you because you fit, not because the universe told you he or she is the right person (despite a less-than-perfect fit down the road).
Let's turn back to Serendipity to see how the universe is supposed to tell people these things. When Cusack and Beckinsale first meet, he notices the freckles on her forearm and tells her that they resemble the constellation Cassiopeia. This may have been merely a set-up to her seeing that particular constellation in the sky years later and taking it as yet another sign that she's meant to be with Cusack. But it is also suggestive of the fact that they interpret a constellation of coincidences, scattered points of information, as having tremendous meaning with respect to their lives. This, of course, is what the ancients did when they looked into the night sky, and this is what people still do when a number of coincidences seem to line up in their lives—"it must mean something!"
Human beings have a natural desire to see order in our lives; we dislike chaos and randomness, and would much prefer that the world makes sense. But as the existentialist philosophers pointed out, the universe itself makes no sense as far as human purpose is concerned, and life is but an absurd joke: we're born, we work and play and love and lose, and we die. If we are going to have any sense and order and meaning in our lives, the universe isn't going to provide it—we have to put it there ourselves. We have to make our own decisions and rule our own lives (one of the things the existentialists took from Kant) rather than let the stars or "signs from the universe" tell us what to do. And the universe definitely isn't going to tell us who our "true" romantic partner or "soulmate" is, even if there were such a thing; it's up to us to find love, not wait for the universe to point the way.
I'm not saying I'm immune to these thoughts—far from it. Quite recently I was in relationship with a woman with similar attitudes to me—"romantic but rational," you could say—and we still caught ourselves saying things like "this was meant to happen" or "we were meant to be." Not only was that not true in a factual sense (we didn't work out) but it was nonsense, and we both knew it. But it was so natural to say, because it made everything seem that much more magical.
But that raises the question, why did we—why does anybody—need to import "magic" into a romantic relationship anyway? Two people merging their hearts and their lives is one of the most amazing (if not literally magical) things that can happen to us. That's why stories of romance captivate so many of us—we want to dream of finding true love, a romantic connection with another person that fulfills us like nothing else. We swoon—well, I do, at least—when the two people finally come together at the end of the movie after their various travails and missteps. (The penultimate scene of Serendipity at the skating rink just nails this, as does the conclusion of Imagine Me & You, with Lena Headey and Piper Perabo, to give another example. And so many others, of course.)
But part of the reason the typical romcom climax works so well is that the two people usually had to work for it. Their initial meeting may have been random but the attraction was real, and from that point on they didn't let the fates decide anything for them; instead, they had found love and they worked to pursue it. In the end, the irony with Serendipity is that, for all of Beckinsale's blathering early on about destiny and "if it's meant to be it will be," both she and Cusack work damn hard to find each other at the end!
Imagining that the person you love is your soulmate and that you're meant to be together is harmless as long as you don't make decisions based on it. If you think like this, it should be because your partner is right for you in actual meaningful ways, not because of a series of meaningless coincidences. And this kind of thinking shouldn't blind you to the possibility that after time, you and your partner may not be as right for each other as you once were. In this case, you can't wait for a sign from the universe—as sappy as it sounds, you have to listen to your heart. (Give me a break, this entire post was based on a romcom!)
For a categorized list of some of my previous Psychology Today posts, see here.