Is "Not a Bad Thing" a Bad Thing?

Justin Timberlake's song "Not a Bad Thing", from his 2013 album The 20/20 Experience -- 2 of 2, is perhaps gaining more fame through its use as the backdrop to a documentary journey in which filmmakers search for a couple who apparently got engaged to the song on a train to New York. Honestly, I got bored, so I stopped watching the video, but one thing that stood out to me from it was one of the first statements from the filmmakers, who claimed that the love shown between these two mysterious people on the train just doesn't happen: "You never see that!" Obviously, they have never looked up any surprise engagement videos on Youtube. If they had, they would realize that the whole internet community gets to see this all the time. I'm not trying to belittle the couple on the train in any way; they're in love, they got engaged, and it was a beautiful moment for them and for those on the train who got to share it with them. However, this idea that we "never see" people in love with each other is a rather silly statement. I get to see that my parents and grandparents are very much in love with each other all the time; my sister and brother-in-law are very much in love; I see couples of all shapes and sizes and ages every day holding hands, sharing kisses, sharing food, doing little acts of kindness for the other, exchanging looks and smiles that exude love. Is it really that we "never see" love, or is that we're just not looking for it?

Maybe the truth is that we purposefully put blinders on our eyes so that we don't have to witness the joy of others. In our modern world of easy hookups and speed dating and one-night stands, our hearts have suffered from an unconscionable amount of disappointment, distress, and brokenness. At an earlier and earlier age, young people are discovering the downside of love, the pain and heartache that comes when you realize that the person who was the source of your joy has left an irreparable hole in your life. We spend so much of our lives trying to seal that wound shut with other people, but the hole becomes more and more ragged as those people continue to tear themselves away. Our hearts get heavier, weighed down with the baggage of the past and the fears of the future, oozing suspicion, pessimism, and regret. We begin to despair of ever finding love and experiencing the joy that is its fruit. We become afraid of getting too attached for fear of being hurt; we avoid labels like "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" so that, when things fall apart, we can comfort ourselves by saying there wasn't really a "thing" there to begin with; we date for years on end, afraid to take the plunge into marriage in case that other shoe just happens to drop. We become jaded and bitter, berating the opposite sex for not living up to our expectations, and vilifying fairy tales for building up those expectations to apparently insurmountable heights. We conclude that love is an illusion, as much a fairy tale as princesses and dragons, and that the only constants are the sexual drive and the economic system. Love is nothing more than an instinctual mating call wrapped in roses, diamonds, and candlelight to make us feel better about its emptiness.

No wonder we can't seem to "see" love anywhere. In an effort to protect ourselves, we've gouged our eyes out.

In a world where we hesitate to even say "I love you" for fear of crossing that sacred threshold that will make us both vulnerable to and responsible for another person, that word "love" has almost become a negative moniker, a thing to be sneered at and derided, a state of mind only indulged in by the young and naive, the foolish and unenlightened. Falling in love is a bad thing because it makes your happiness dependent on another person; dependency can only be a bad thing, subjecting you to the whims of another. To be an autonomous island who is responsible for nothing and no one but oneself, so the thinking goes, is the only way to exist contentedly. And I guess that's true, if "content" is all you want to be in this life. But what about being overjoyed? What about overflowing with happiness? What about dancing in the streets and singing in the rain? What about getting engaged on trains, and being so happy you can't help but burst into tears? Is "content" all we really want to be? Or do we want to be fully, deeply, and passionately alive, in love with the world and everyone in it, embracing this one life we have on earth for all that it has to offer, regardless of the vulnerability or the pain? Isn't that the only kind of life that's really worth living?

Timberlake's song "Not a Bad Thing" works to convince the beloved to discard the negative ideas surrounding love in order to remember that love is a good, in fact, the highest good. True love is the most beautiful and joyous thing that exists anywhere at any time. It is the thing that makes us worthy of immortality, of eternal life, of eternal joy. And the poet reminds the beloved of this by pointing to that very idea of "forever" that is inherent in any idea of true love. True love must be forever. The words "break up" or "divorce" cannot exist in the vocabulary of true love. The poet tells the beloved: "all I want from you is to see you tomorrow / And every tomorrow ... / ... is it too much to ask for every Sunday / And while we're at it, throw in every other day". Permanence is an essential part of love that cannot be abrogated or denied. The poet attempts to persuade the beloved that love is something she can trust in, that she can depend on. The poet's love will be true and reliable; his promises will not be broken. The only thing the poet desires is the beloved's person; the only thing the beloved need do is accept this freely given love.

"Not a Bad Thing" emphasizes the fact that love is essentially an act of faith. Just like with religious faith, there is no quantifiable, scientific, material proof that can be offered to assure the beloved that the poet's love is a factual thing. The only way that the beloved can know that the poet's love exists is, first, by hearing his words of love to her and, second, by choosing to trust him, by believing that what he says is true. In the same way that the secular world has denied faith as something that can legitimately be demanded of a person in the realm of supernatural relations, it has also denied that exact same possibility in the realm of human relations. No one can be trusted; no one can be believed. Love is impossible. The only way this can be overcome is by making ourselves vulnerable again, by choosing to trust and to believe that love is a possibility, that it is not something we "never see". In this case, as in the case for religion, seeing can never be believing; believing is the only way by which we can see.

Justin Timberlake's song has been compared to his earlier work with boy band 'N Sync because of its almost syrupy-sweet, bubblegum pop quality. The song is reminiscent of love ballads like "This I Promise You" and "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You", which tends almost to give it less credibility in many people's eyes. But these are exactly the kind of songs we need to start taking seriously. These are the songs that reveal to us the essence of love, the reality of it that goes beyond our personal insecurities, failures, and letdowns. These songs remind us to take the blinders off, turn our hearts of stone back into hearts of flesh, and take that leap of faith that is needed to truly see that true love can never be a bad thing.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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