Her: Parable of A Disembodied Soul

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My girlfriend makes me do a lot of stuff. Among them is watching movies which slip through my very limited attention span. I trust her with my time though, and so far, her taste has not failed me yet.

I have recently watched the movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. I have found it to be both emotionally-touching and intellectually-arousing. The movie is about a man who lived in a time when technology has advanced to a point where our electronic devices are ran by operating systems (OS) which are self-aware, or have their own personal identities and consciousness. This man eventually falls in love with his OS. That, of course, raises a lot of questions. And I think that’s what makes the movie so good. The movie Her got me thinking about a lot of things: what constitutes humanity, what constitutes committed relationships, what happiness truly is about and how valuable are sincere gestures of affection, especially in a time when the boundaries of the virtual and the ‘real’ become blurred. I don’t intend to deconstruct the movie to find the answers to the questions. Even if the answers were or weren’t there, I think the movie has done its part in making us think about it. Watch the movie. I recommend it.

Anyway, a theme that stands out for me in the movie is the phenomenon of people growing apart. This, I think, is a sad and inevitable truth. The fact that we are separate individuals experiencing different things from different points of view leads us to grow more into different individuals in the passage of time. However, being human entails that we are subject to the idea of relying on other people for our needs. And that comprises of demanding that people do not change too much. In romantic relationships, for example, we choose to share our lives with partners who will be with us for better or worse. If we think about how much we can change in a given period of time, we would either realize how relationships are unrealistic and self-destructive or how important a decision entering one is.

Of course the difficulty growing apart presents is not only present in romance. Our relationships with our parents, friends, as well as our lovers are all complicated by the fact that we can’t truly and fully rely on our idea of other people as they, as well as us, are subject to change. Sometimes, even, the change in a person is so drastic and feels so unlikely to happen that we find it hard to resolve if we ever really knew that person. In such cases, we feel betrayed: we wish to have found out earlier about the things we deem to have known too late.

This is not a rare scenario. A lot of failed marriages, broken friendships and divided households are based on things a party has kept from another, be they intentional or not. This leads us to question the whole point of relationships: why trust fickle people? Why love people who are not transparent about their every flaw and imperfection until it is too late?

Here I find the importance of one of the many things which the movie communicated to me: the importance of physical presence in any relationship.

By physical presence, I do not mean how we physically appear, but rather the very act of appearing itself. And perhaps not just “appearing”, but actually being in a particular place at a particular moment physically. Some people might disagree that it is of much importance in a relationship, as people can be physically present but remain emotionally distant at the same time. I do not deny this. Perhaps most people would prefer partners, parents and friends who may not be physically there, but are emotionally and intellectually involved in their lives. But I think it cannot be denied that a simple touch of comfort and warmth can sometimes soothe our most profound sorrow easier than any combination of words may attempt. An embrace, a pat on the shoulder, a kiss: these are not to be shoved aside as unimportant. Human beings, after all, are not just souls, they are also bodies.

We are told that the universe is continually expanding. Things, by and through nature, drift away from each other farther and father apart, perhaps for eternity. The same is true with our minds. For this reason, people grow apart and become more and more different from one another. It is inescapable, yes. But I do not think that this only hinders relationships to thrive, but rather, they also provide the context in which relationships are needed. The fact that people “grow apart” is exactly why we need other people. the more other people become alien to us, the more they may complement us in our inferiority, in the same way we complement theirs. Experiences we spend together, while turning us into different people as we may perceive them differently, also enable us to realize where we stand and where we are needed in the lives of other people. So Woody Allen was right: a large part of succeeding in life, as well as in relationships, is merely showing up. Love, for the most part, is simply being there.

The presence of the people we love: the fact that they are with us, though their minds might be fixed someplace else or their hearts might be feeling things other than genuine love for us is a valuable thing, especially when we consider that they can leave anytime. The fact that they choose to stay and grace us with their bodies is what makes relationships so valuable. They are sacrificing moments and time they can never take back. And somehow, that is more valuable, I think, than having someone who “wishes you well” but is really absent. Or who cries for you when you are sad, but is never there to wipe your tears. We don’t need mere audiences. We need love.

Physical presence is what we may cling to when they seem to be grow farther and farther from our first impressions of them. This is what Samantha could not offer Theodore in the movie even if she tried: the assurance of growing old together. Our bodies are equally as important as our minds and hearts in entering a relationship, as their presence signify the choice to stay and, although one may grow apart from the other no matter how near they may be in proximity, grow old and wear out with another.

We are trapped in time. And experiencing different experiences, knowing different pieces of wisdom at different paces, our minds can go an infinite distance from each other. We cannot help but move farther away from everyone else. But our bodies, we can control. While separating us from one another’s identity, our bodies also enable us to express our longing and desire to be one with another. It may sometimes be hard to control, but it is the only thing we are capable of controlling. And through controlling it right, we are able to inhabit the moment with the people we love, with eyes fixed on theirs, even as our minds drift away farther and farther from them. They can at least rely on our bodies being there, wasting away with them.

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