*Spoiler Alert! Don’t read this essay unless you have seen the movie La La Land or don’t mind knowing the ending.*
We finally saw La La Land last night—cheap ticket night. We even took the seven-year-old, despite knowing there would be a few cuss words. She resisted going, but cheap ticket night isn’t cheap if you have to pay a babysitter. So we promised her there would be singing, dancing, and romance.
And there was plenty of all three. Along with parties and jazz combos and the brightest of bright colors, always spinning, swirling. It was musical theater meets magical realism on the big screen.
Not a movie you immediately associate with Lent. Mardi Gras, perhaps, but not Lent with its “ashes to ashes,” its self-deprivation, its minor keys and muted colors.
But if Lent is a season of self-examination, I believe this movie can serve as a mirror, allowing us to reflect on—perhaps grieve, and finally embrace—the incompleteness of our lives.
Mia and Sebastian fall in love. She dreams of being an actress. He dreams of owning his own jazz club where he can play jazz the way he wants. They inspire one another to pursue their dreams. But ninety minutes in they realize: any dream chasing will have to be done apart.
“I will always love you,” Mia says as they sit in front of the planetarium where they first kissed.
Five years later she is a star, happily married with a toddler daughter. He, still single, owns his own club. It’s implied they haven’t seen each other during those five years.
Then Mia and her husband end up one evening at Sebastian’s club, though she doesn’t know it’s his until she enters. She and Sebastian lock eyes. As Sebastian plays their love song, she dreams about what life might have been like if they’d stayed together. Her reverie is winsome, utterly happy.
It’s also fiction. Fantasy, not reality.
As she and her husband are leaving, Mia turns one last time to Sebastian. Their glance is filled with the pain of what might have been but is not. Some enchanted evening, as the song goes, you may see your true love across a crowded room. But in this musical, we’re at the end and they’re about to part for good.
As I watched, I ached with them.
And then, mirabile dictu, they smiled at each other, as if to bless one another before turning back to live the lives they have, not the ones they could have had.
We are used to romances ending with the couple getting all they want—overcoming every obstacle, achieving all their dreams, and staying together happily ever after. This twist ending subverts the genre.
Yet this ending rings so very true. Because every “yes” is a thousand “no’s”; every dream achieved is a hundred unpursued; every life lived leaves a million unfulfilled possibilities in its wake.
One way to live is to rage against this reality, to spend our energy pursuing every possibility. Not resting until every dream comes true. Not settling until we’ve lived every possible life.
Beating frantically, persistently against every closed door.
Lent teaches us another way: to look at the lives we have with unflinching honesty, see their inherent beauty and possibilities, their frustrations and incompleteness. And then to embrace those lives as the ones in which God is at work comforting, challenging, shaping, loving.
Lent also teaches us to bless and release the lives we could have had but don’t, the fantasy lives we escape into or bitterly hold—lives of unfulfilled dreams closed off by our own choices and the fact of our finitude. We can smile at them knowingly, lovingly even, the way Mia and Sebastian smile at one another, before turning back to the lives we have.
Writer on the spiritual life Ron Rolheiser has asked, “Do we cry with each other and support each other in the frustration of our incompleteness or do we give each other the impression that there is something wrong with us because our lives are inconsummate and our symphonies are incomplete?”
I believe we should choose the former. Because Lent’s climax in the paschal mystery helps us to see that in the incomplete, inconsummate lives we actually live, the possibilities of deeper love, self-giving, and holy fulfillment are never completely foreclosed.