In this summer’s hit film, “The Fault in Our Stars,” two cancer-stricken adolescents meet in a support group and fall deeply in love. The boy, Augustus Waters, played by Ansel Elgort, is 18, and the girl, Hazel Grace Lancaster, played by Shailene Woodley, is 16. Because Hazel is dying, their time is short. After leaving the film, it occurred to me that the type of relationship these characters share is the opposite of what many singles, Jewish and otherwise, experience in big city dating.
Augustus, nicknamed Gus, explains he fears oblivion; specifically, that he will be forgotten after his death. (Though his cancer is in remission, it could return). He falls for Hazel hard and fast.
Hazel, whose thyroid cancer is terminal, is more cautious, mainly for fear of hurting Gus when she dies. (“I’m a grenade,” she tells him. “I’m going to explode and obliterate everything in my wake and I feel like it’s my responsibility to minimize the casualties.”)
The film’s magic lies in its depiction of a couple whose time is desperately limited. And yet, in that short time, rather than rush things, Gus takes his time wooing Hazel into falling in love with him.
He reads her favorite book and discusses it with her. He sits with her and ponders, not without a touch of wry humor, a swing set that makes her nostalgic for her childhood (“Let me see this swing set of tears,” he says). And telling is his choice to call her Hazel Grace, using a middle name which would have been lovingly given her by her parents (played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) and which we suspect, if only semi-consciously, will seldom be used in her short life.
While they do text, watch movies and play video games, these teenage characters are not wedded to their iPads or iPhones. They aren’t compulsively checking their Facebook pages or texting a dozen other people when they’re together. Their time is dear, and they know it.
These are fictional characters. Yet the film prompts certain questions about the love lives of fortunate young professionals (code for 20-, 30-, and 40-something singles).
If falling deeply in love requires getting to know a person, and that process demands focus on an individual, is it any mystery that, in a place and time when singles perceive romantic choices as limitless, finding love is such a challenge? Does a multitude of options lead us to deeper, more fulfilling relationships? Where is the wonder in swiping through hundreds of profiles on Match.com? Can anything (or anyone) tender survive on Tinder?
Does this state of affairs have a role in the study recently released by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, which found New York City to be the “most unhappy” city in America?
Jewish dating experts and singles point to an irony: the proliferation of online dating sites and apps have made it more difficult to focus on one person.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of “Kosher Lust,” agreed that the fictional relationship depicted in “The Fault in Our Stars” could be illuminating for real-life singles.
“In this tragic film, this couple had no choice but to focus because of limited time, but our challenge is to find that focus outside of tragic circumstances,” said Rabbi Boteach, adding that difficulty focusing on another individual is among the most common problems he encounters in his work counseling couples, and he thinks the problem is widespread among singles as well.
“You see it at singles events, where even as people speak to each other their heads are like roving radar towers — just scanning constantly, looking for who’s better,” said the rabbi.
New York City Jewish singles seem to agree that, ironically, the abundance of online dating sites, apps and meeting opportunities can make it hard to focus on anyone in particular.
One man characterized the effects of dating apps on the male psyche as similar to those of pornography. “Tinder is malignant,” said Matthew Ruskin (not his real name), 33, an investment banker who lives in Midtown. “It’s almost like pornography. Swipe, swipe, swipe, like you’re throwing women away.” He added, “Porn changes the way you think about sex and makes it harder to fall for one woman.”
“With New York City dating, there’s what I call a menu problem,” said Joey Lifschitz, 39, of Gramercy, a real estate analyst. “The same way, when you go to a Chinese restaurant with a huge menu, you can get pepper steak, beef with broccoli, beef with onions and a hundred other things; you can be like, ‘Do I want to meet a blonde with brown eyes or a brunette with blue eyes or green eyes today? And go on forever.’”
He added, “It’s exacerbated by the sites. There are so many —JDate, CoffeeMeetsBagel, Hinge, Tinder — it takes a sense of maturity and discipline to settle down.”
Lifschitz said he’s disconnected his JDate.com messages from his regular e-mail so as to increase his focus.
“If I have a good date, I don’t want to know if other girls have written to me because I don’t want to cloud my mind unnecessarily.”
He has a plan that utilizes the Chinese restaurant analogy.
“Now if I’m on a date, my plan is to enjoy the date and not think about anyone else. Like ordering a dish I like. So part one is, you want to pick your dish and stick with it.
“Part two, enjoy the dish.
“And if she’s a lifelong dish, I won’t order anything else.”