I’ll Never Be Mulan, Bridget, or Merida

and that’s completely okay

 

A series of personal dramas befell my friend group this past month. While one friend was going through a breakup, another was figuring out her feelings in a budding relationship, and all the while I was going through a chain of existential crises, which involved continuous exasperated exclamations of “What am I going to do with my life?!”

After the cushioned bubble of first year, and the blur that was first semester sophomore year, this semester has shown me that life is anything but easy. Sure, things will “work themselves out” in the end, but the road there is stressful. And after the past couple months’ whirlwind of midterms, internship applications and interviews, and emotional 4 a.m. talks with women who were just as stressed as I am, I realized just how wrong the movies had it.

Movies (rom-coms and Disney-Pixar films in particular) encourage us to think of ourselves as the protagonists of our own story. Around us are factors that make us sad or happy, and our lives have to revolve around enhancing the happy and expelling the sad. Most of the time, movies teach us that being young is wild, carefree, and a whole lot of fun. Even if we have no idea where we’re going, we thoroughly enjoy the ride because we know that we’ll always be okay. “Hakuna matata,” because everything little thing is going to be all right, right?

Wrong. What the seemingly flawless, cake-faced actors, emotionally two-dimensional cartoons, and rectangular frames don’t show is just how complicated life truly is. No, I won’t know exactly who I am at 18. Unlike Moana, or Merida from Brave, or Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, I won’t know what my calling is, and I won’t know the exact steps I need to take to achieve it. Unlike Bridget Jones, Jenna from 13 Going on 30, or Mulan, heartache hasn’t encouraged any of my friends or me to stand up, work harder, and achieve more. Instead, it’s resulted in midnight tantrums, messed-up digestive systems, and turns taken sitting with each other, comforting one another, and moping through rainy afternoons. Lastly, unlike in most of these wildly optimistic movies, love and romance aren’t the solution to all our problems—instead, they become the source of unnecessary headaches.

So what is life, and why hasn’t it turned out like the movies said it would? When days get dark, where are the large speakers playing emotional Coldplay songs that match my mood? Where is the montage with happy music that shows me, the protagonist, slowly piecing my life back together? And where is the moment when I find complete and utter happiness because I realize that I am enough?

My theory is that it’s a work in progress. As the old saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Yet, growing up with fabulous, feel-good movies that last just over 90 minutes has gotten me used to the idea that life happens at the snap of your fingers. I’ve learned that singing a song in an open space with wind in my hair isn’t going to give me courage to face the (metaphorical) rough seas. I’ve also learned that “following my dreams” is easier said than done, because dreams change what one thinks is a “good plan.”

As my friends’ problems of the heart have shown me, there will be so many awful people out there posing as good ones, so it’s important to stay guarded. There is no white knight, no one to save you when you’re in distress, and a good kiss doesn’t magically turn your life around. And, even if something feels like the endgame, so many small things can change that alter its course completely. At the end of the day, nothing is ever truly permanent, so you have to keep working at it in order to continue getting it right. The funny thing is that in movies, girlfriends give each other pep talks to help each other through the blues, and they manage to pull each other out of their funks. But after watching some of the people I love most go through rough patches—and after going through turbulent times myself—I realized that no amount of wise words can alleviate the pain or shitty feeling in one’s gut. Why? Because recovery starts from within and takes a lot longer than a two-minute montage with a Norah Jones song playing in the background.

How does life work, then, if Meg Cabot and Walt Disney were actually wrong about the plausibility of the “fairytale”?

I have no idea. In my opinion, “happily ever after” isn’t a thing. I used to get frustrated that after a row of “down” days the universe didn’t magically turn around and offer me happiness, but I now know better. Instead of defining my life through cinematic phases, I’ve learned to take each day little by little and live it like its own, independent adventure. Because the one thing that cinema did get right is that as long as you surround yourself with people you love, your days instantly become infinitely better. Sure, you’ll all be in deep shit for various reasons—joblessness, heartache, confusion about life direction—but at least you’ll all be in deep shit together. That’s not to say that you should encourage each others’ shitty situations. Of course, you must keep on working hard to turn things around and find your way. But a friendly face, kind eyes, and warm hug go a long way in alleviating stress and anxiety.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that life isn’t like the movies. I guess it makes it more exciting that way, doesn’t it? Going through the bad times makes the good so much sweeter, even if the bad times sometimes seem unbearably lengthy. So my current approach is to dance through life and take each day as it comes, without expecting or wanting too much from the universe. Life is really scary, and as I approach the end of half of my college career, my stress levels are reaching an all-time high. But even if life isn’t a Disney movie, I’m excited to live today to the fullest and to take in stride whatever tomorrow brings. I’ve decided that, from now on, growing up is going to be one hell of an adventure.