When I was a senior in high school, the movie “Good Will Hunting” was released. It is one of my all-time favorites that I have watched countless times. If you are unfamiliar with it, here is a quick summary:
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) has a genius-level IQ but chooses to work as a janitor at MIT. When he solves a difficult graduate-level math problem, his talents are discovered by Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), who decides to help the misguided youth reach his potential. When Will is arrested for attacking a police officer, Professor Lambeau makes a deal to get leniency for him if he will get treatment from therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams).
I was first introduced to the film by Chris Thacker, who was serving as an intern at the church I grew up in. Chris and I became friends quickly that summer and part of that friendship was based on a mutual appreciating for cinema. I know, that makes us sound like snobby middle-aged men with patches on the elbows of our tweed jackets, stroking each other’s intellects while looking down our noses at the masses. It was far from that. We mostly just watched Pulp Fiction on a loop.
In discussing “Good Will Hunting,” Chris asked the question of who I thought I was in the film, either Matt Damon’s character, Will Hunting, the damaged genius, one breakthrough away from reaching his unbelievable potential or his best friend, Chuckie Sullivan, played by Ben Affleck. Chuckie was a perfect caricature of every Boston stereotype, blue collar, hardworking and loyal to a fault. This question is one I have asked myself continuously through the last two decades, and there are times when I have felt like I have been both characters.
Last night I couldn’t sleep, as happens far too often, so I turned on the TV and found that “Good Will Hunting” was on. It was close to halfway through, right at the point where Will Hunting is introduced to Robin William’s character, the therapist Sean Maguire. As I watched their relationship playout for what must certainly be more than the hundredth time, I felt a strange shift. An uncomfortable, yet comforting realization. I am not Will Hunting. I am not Chuckie Sullivan. I am Sean Maguire.
When we are introduced to his character, it is about two years after his wife’s death from cancer. He’s working at a college and doing his best to continue to exist, though it quickly becomes apparent that he buried his own life along with his wife.
Through their sessions, Sean begins to challenge Will to open himself up to others and to start living his life. As the sessions continue, Will begins to turn the tables on Sean, challenging him to begin to live his life again after his wife’s death.
It is a difficult thing to do. When your life has been drawn and quartered by cancer, it is paralyzing. The prospect of moving forward with your life seems impossible. You don’t know who you are because for so long you defined yourself by the person you loved. Your goals seem insignificant. Interactions with others often feel forced. Food loses its taste. All of existence seems so unbelievably pointless that the proposition of doing anything at all just feels like absolute nonsense.
And then you take a step.
And then two.
And then you jog a little.
Slowly, but surely you begin to live again. There is no one-time occurrence when you decide to move forward and you look back and say, “That was the turning point.” It’s a path. Sometimes you move forward on it. Sometimes you sit still and have to catch your breath. For short bursts, you may even sprint.
I’m on the path, and I’m moving forward. It doesn’t mean that I am leaving Emily behind. Very much to the contrary. She motivates me to move forward. There has been no turning point. Just a lot of small steps and a wide open horizon in front of me.
Spoiler alert: as the movie concludes, we see that both Will and Sean have walked each other through this process and are both accepting the challenge to move forward and live their lives. In their final scene together, Sean tells Will, “I just figured it’s time I put my money back on the table, see what kind of cards I get.”
I suppose I’m pushing my chips in, too. I’m all in. How do you like them apples?