The show How I Met Your Mother is coming to a close this year, and with it your weekly reminders that “the universe has a plan” and that its plan will make sure you “end up exactly where you’re supposed to be, exactly when you’re supposed to be there.” The show follows the story of how Josh Radnor’s Ted meets the love of his life, and all the ups and downs along the way. Over the summer, Radnor said “It’s not a nihilistic show … things happen and then there’s consequences – everything happens for a reason in the world of How I Met Your Mother.” He calls this the “quasi-spiritual dimension” of the show.
“Quasi-spiritual” is a good way to describe it: the show’s repeated references to The Universe are both funny and somehow comforting – useful as an overarching theme, yet not as threatening as a full-blown dogma.
But when I hear the characters’ repeated references to The Universe, Life and Destiny, I can’t help mentally replacing them with other terms, just to see how they would sound:
“That’s the funny thing about God’s plan. It happens whether you plan it or not. But, I think for the most part, if you’re really honest with yourself about what you want out of life, God gives it to you.”
“Never forget that on any day, you can step out the front door and your whole life can change forever. You see, God has a plan kids, and that plan is always in motion.”
“Kids, you can ask God for signs all you want; but ultimately, we only see what we want to see, when we’re ready to see it.”
Sounds a little more intense, right? As a high-church WASP who isn’t too comfortable with casual references to “God’s plan” in conversation, let alone in her favorite sitcoms, my replacement exercise always gives me pause.
The show is relentless in its position that, as the line actually goes, “If you’re really honest with yourself about what you want out of life, life gives it to you.” When Ted asks an acquaintance if he really believes he will find true love, the other responds, “Of course. Everyone does eventually … you just never know when or where.” This “quasi-spiritual” theory is less reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian outlook, and more evocative of the disturbing self-help book The Secret, and its accompanying DVD which dramatizes the “Law of Attraction” gimmick by showing a woman gazing at a necklace in a store window, then suddenly finding it around her neck.
But that comparison may be too harsh. After all, Ted wants love and a family – hardly the moral equivalent of a shiny necklace. And while Christian teaching would generally encourage us to put aside what we want – “Not my will, but thine, be done” – theologian C.S. Lewis put forth a case for just such honesty in prayer – to not pray for what you should want, but what you do want:
“We want to know not how we should pray if we were perfect but how we should pray being as we now are … It is no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”
From this perspective, Ted is not hoping the universe will reward him for wanting B badly enough – he’s just being honest with himself, or with “life,” that, for better or worse, he wants B instead of A.
The show does not suggest that Ted – or anyone – has a direct line to The Universe. Another running theme is the characters’ misinterpretations of what are and aren’t “signs from The Universe.” Some are funny, like when Jason Segel’s Marshall believes The Universe wants him to buy an old firehouse and become a Ghostbuster. Some are more heart-wrenching, like when Cobie Smulders’ Robin breaks down because she can’t find the locket that was to be her “something old” at her wedding, and fears it’s a sign that she shouldn’t go through with it.
While she’s crying, Ted tries to comfort her by saying, “Maybe it’s dumb to look for signs from the universe – maybe the universe has better things to do. Dear God, I hope it does.”
If you’ve ever met someone in real life who frequently references The Universe’s will in conversation – without that dash of irony employed by the show – you know that they’re not the self-doubting type. A woman once told me that she would try to work on a project she had planned, but, she said blithely, “If The Universe wants it to happen, it will happen!” This seemed to me an excellent way to absolve oneself of responsibility – also a common criticism of those who like to reference “God’s will.”
But maybe there’s a middle ground between the two extremes of waiting for The Universe to decide something and demanding It give you what you want. To extend Lewis’ example, it could be described as Option C.
Here’s how I think of it: One night during my freshman year of college, I had dinner with the girls on my hall. Somehow the conversation turned to marriage, and one of us said “I mean, I’m not like one of those girls who prays for a husband!” Most of us laughed, but fell silent when another girl said, “I do that.”
We waited uncomfortably. She then explained that she didn’t pray to find a husband, or to get married, but for her husband. “I just pray that he’s okay wherever he is, that he’s not making stupid decisions,” she said frankly.
It’s an option somewhere between absolving ourselves of all responsibility and compulsively fixating on the one thing that we believe could make us happy: a hope that The Universe, or Whoever, will make sure that the people we love, and will someday love, are okay – wherever they are.