“’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” – Alfred Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”
Despite its age, Alfred Tennyson’s quote has cemented its role as an iconic pop culture reference in various media, including cinema, music, and literature. However, whether or not it is better to have loved and lost remains ambiguous. Though Tennyson provides a clear answer, the stinging pain of regret is ultimately subjective.
I’ve seen a lot of films that tackle that question: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), “500 Days of Summer” (2009), and “La La Land” (2016). But I find how “Her” (2013) explores love particularly resonant. Though the obvious depiction of romance is that between the protagonist, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), and his artificially intelligent Siri-equivalent lover, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), I’m more captivated by his relationship with his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara).
“Her” chronicles the story of soon-to-be divorced Theodore, confused and conflicted by the ending of his marriage with Catherine. He has flashbacks of their pristine moments, colored by the rose-tinted brilliance of glowing sunlight and endless smiles. Theodore finds it challenging to separate that identity from her — when he thinks of Catherine, she embodies that all-embracing glow. However, when the audience meets her, we realize how different Catherine is from Theodore’s perception of her. She serves him divorce papers at lunch while entertaining some light conversation. Some of her warmth creeps in until Theodore not-so-subtly drops that he’s seeing his Operating System (Samantha). Catherine asks, “Wait… I’m sorry. You’re dating your computer?” Theodore responds, “She’s not just a computer, she’s her own person. She doesn’t just do whatever I say.” Finally, she adds, “I didn’t say that. But it does make me very sad that you can’t handle real emotions, Theodore.”
Catherine is right not just about Theodore, but also the state of social media, dating, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the internet as a whole. Maybe it has made everyone a bit uncomfortable with handling “real emotions” when we can access an answer, or a person, or a machine that feeds us whatever response we crave. It’s easy to craft a response to a text message with unlimited backspaces, edits, and hours. Real emotions are messy — we might present ourselves poorly, or have immense regret about something careless we said. We don’t have an audience that agrees with everything we say, nor do we have a million chances to make everything right. We run the risk of losing people, things, and pieces of ourselves with that carelessness that seems so banal when we are typing on our laptop keyboards. Maybe technology has made us believe that people are a commodity. With every swipe on our screens, we can create another connection because millions of (insert your preferred dating app) profiles exist at our fingertips. In this space, it can seem that nobody is distinct, every relationship is replicable, and we can instantly receive whatever compliment we want. We can input any word into AI, and it spits out what we desire. Even Theodore realizes his relationship with Samantha is not real when he discovers he is one of 641 others.
I want to be clear that there’s nothing innately wrong with technology. It’s simply that we can’t handle real emotions. How can we be expected to when we spend hours scrolling through dozens and thousands of people? But, we’re hypocritically beautiful. Even in the endless stream of chaos, where we are told daily that none of our connections fundamentally matter, we still want them to. Theodore, though incapable of handling real emotions, desires to learn how to. And even through the hurt he experiences, loving Catherine and all of the pain she undergoes while trying to cut off their relationship, the two can still sit at a table and care about each other.
The last lines of the film are a letter Theodore writes to Catherine:
“Dear Catherine, I’ve been sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other. Everything I put on you. Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. I’m sorry for that. I’ll always love you ’cause we grew up together and you helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I’m grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you love. You’re my friend to the end. Love, Theodore.”
The bonds we create outside the virtual world are significant because they’re tangibly real. Our relationships are small stories that fill our novels. Some chapters are brimming with ripped pages, while others are pristinely printed with carefully typed black letters. Losing the love that Tennyson writes about is part of what makes life beautiful. You’re only hurt so immensely by someone you care significantly about. The pain they inflict doesn’t remove their mark on your life.
I decided to write about “Her” because I love that last monologue. It is incredibly special to me because of how hopeful it is. Theodore takes accountability for hurting Catherine and values every version of her: past, present, and future. He will never stop loving her, and he doesn’t want to. They made each other their distinct selves, and for that alone, Theodore is eternally grateful. She’s his friend to the end, despite it all.
Maybe I’m naive, but I’ll always believe it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The regret of inaction haunts me far more than the sting of regret. It’s frightening to have Tennyson’s perspective because loving requires vulnerability — real emotions necessitate a leap of faith and a whole lot of hope. But, if you never look for that connection, you’ll never find it. If you take one thing away from this article, I want it to be this: put yourself out there, as little or as much as you subjectively feel. I just ask that you try. Because if you don’t, you might miss out on someone — or something — truly extraordinary.