It's Not Your Fault or Is It?
In 1997, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck stared in the academy award winning movie Good Will Hunting, which they also wrote. Near the end of the movie is a very poignant scene between Robin Williams, who plays psychologist and widower, Sean Macguire, and Matt Damon, who plays Will Hunting, a genius who has spent most of his life in foster homes and engaging in delinquency. Will has severe abandonment issues, among others, and hides it with a tough exterior. It also turns out he was physically abused by one of his foster fathers. Much of the movie is spent on the counseling relationship between Sean and Will. The counseling Sean is giving Will has little effect until in one of the last scenes of the movie when Sean produces a manila folder with a pictorial and written history of Will’s abuse. Sean reveals he too was abused. He says to Will as he holds up Will’s file and drops it on the desk: “Hey, Will? I don't know a lot. You see this? All of this [stuff]. It’s not your fault.” He steadily, calmly and softly repeats it nine times as he moves physically closer and closer to a resistant Will who, after the ninth time finally crumbles and sobs uncontrollably as he at last releases the pain that had tormented him for so long. The movie ends with both men sealing their bond of friendship with one another and pursuing, in their own way, paths of continued healing.
I think this movie should be required viewing for any Christian. There is lots of language that may offend some, but the message of the movie is strong. The reason I think the message is so powerful is because it speaks so much to a true understanding of sin as sickness, condemning self-judgment and judgment in general, the fine line between our sense of accountability and self forgiveness, and both God’s love and our love for each other as it should be.
On the surface, Will is a rebellious, abrasive, and obnoxious person. He gets into physical fights, beats people up, and spends time in jail. We see all of this at the beginning of the movie. At this point, without knowing much about him other than this, it is easy to holistically judge him as a bad guy. In real life, I think this holistic place is often a pretty common place for all of us to get to, especially in today’s media and social media culture where we experience each other more and more through electronic mediums as opposed to face to face, and in sound bites and snap shots. Even when we do experience each other face to face and encounter someone who has behaved wretchedly, do we take the time to really get to know the person and the person’s circumstances or do we rush to judgment in our thought? Or, if we do get to know the person and the person’s situation and discover something akin to what Will went through, do we get afraid of being too soft and making excuses for wrong behavior?
These are good questions and thoughts to wrestle with. In any given situation where we are called to love as Christ loves, we have to discern how much of ourselves we are bringing to the situation and how that may color our judgment as to what it truly best for a person. We have to discern our own hearts and what biases and baggage we may acting on unconsciously, and it is difficult.
Using Will as an example, in a fight at the beginning of the movie he beats up another guy pretty badly and gets sentenced to jail. One school of thought would be to hold him accountable for his own good and let him sit in jail in hopes it would serve as a wake-up call to him so he could change his behavior. Another school of thought would suggest a softer approach, not lot him sit in jail, and to try to understand him better in hopes that is would be the beginning of rehabilitation. Regardless of which school of thought we identify with more, the question worth asking ourselves is why we think what we think? In this or any situation, if we understand why we think what we think, and can prayerfully and reflectively identify and separate our own “stuff,” then we are likely to be more Christ-like to a person.
It’s clear by the end of the movie Will was suffering from a sickness as a result of the past abuse he endured. He pushes people away. He’s afraid of intimacy. He has misplaced aggression. If we were to only watch the beginning of the movie and not the rest of it, and only saw the playground fight scene, we would judge Will a lot differently. We may fall into the trap of judging his actions, his sin of beating someone up, as infraction. It would be easy to see Will simply as a punk. It is only by investing in the whole movie that we see clearly he is so much more than a punk. When we learn that he himself is an abuse victim it is much easier to see his sin as infection, as we are taught to see it in Orthodoxy and beautifully enlightened in a great article explaining the difference between infraction and infection by Frederica Mathewes-Green. This investment of time is a lesson in and of itself. I know it doesn’t take that much of a time investment to watch a two hour movie but if we extrapolate this to our relationships with others; it can serve as a reminder to be patient and invest the appropriate time to discern more about a person.
The other lesson I personally draw from this movie is one about accountability and fault. Will certainly made bad choices that he was accountable for. He chose to beat somebody up and the Judge in the story gave him the maximum sentence for his crime until the MIT math professor, Gerald Lambeau who was Sean’s college roommate, intervened, and was able to secure a deal based on a set of conditions, one of which was for Will to engage in counseling. This of course led to his healing relationship with Sean.
I think sometimes it’s all too easy for us to vacillate between extremes when it comes to personal accountability. Everything is our fault or nothing is our fault. It seems there are some people who blame society for every person’s bad actions and others who think people deserve harsh punishment no matter what their personal background or circumstance that may have contributed to their present actions.
We have to be careful in our own thought whenever we behave poorly or wrongly that we don’t make inappropriate excuses for ourselves and essentially engage in self-deception. The reason is simply because this type of thinking actually hardens or dulls our hearts and erects a barrier between us and God. Those of you who read or listen to my work know one of my favorite scriptures is James 4:8, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” As I have explained often, God is always near but we do not always perceive and experience God as such. A huge barrier to our nearness to God is self-deception which creates a lack of an authentic heart. Many of the great figures in the Bible – Moses, David, Peter and Paul – just to name a few committed murder, adultery and other great sins, but never engaged in self-deception. They certainly suffered the consequences of their actions but because of their integrity of heart were able to sincerely repent, grow spiritually and draw near to God.
David is a great example. He committed adultery and murder. When finally confronted with his sin he never made excuses. His immediate response was a confession that he sinned against God (2 Kingdoms 12:13 or 2 Samuel 12:13). Later in scripture, after David has died, when speaking to his son Solomon, God says “Now if you walk before Me as your father David walked, in integrity of heart and in uprightness (3 Kingdoms 9:4, 1 Kings 9:4). It’s kind of shocking at first to think God would describe someone who did such awful things as having integrity of heart. However, David did not avoid the consequences of his behavior, and God does not describe him as having perfect behavior, simply an authentic heart. Despite very poor choices and consequences, David’s heart was true and that is how he was able grow past his sin and accept consequences without excuses. The lesson to us is simply not to make excuses for our behavior but to always strive to be honest with ourselves because in doing so we allow God in. This movie also reminds me not to wallow in self-pity. Will never seemed to wallow in self-pity due to his harsh circumstances or poor behavior. David didn’t wallow in self-pity either. Again, both were able to grow as a result.
Another great lesson from this movie is to accept the love and concern of others. Will had Gerry and Sean willing to invest in him. He pushed both away at first, and was even mean spirited at times, but they both hung in there with him, especially Sean. David had Nathan the Prophet who was willing to confront his King which was a very bold thing to do. It may make us mad at first when people confront us with the truth about ourselves but if we can get past the initial anger and defensiveness and really listen to what they are saying, we made may discern God at work through them. What I mean by that is that Christ commands us to love Him and love each other. The “each other” part often comes through people who are willing to be honest with us despite the potential for backlash from us.
The other extreme, the opposite of making excuses and engaging in self-deception, is to blame ourselves for everything or be overly harsh judges of ourselves. This is actually a form of pride resulting from humanistic thinking bordering on self-absorption. Judas is a perfect example. As the Orthodox Study Bible comments, Judas was so self-absorbed he was remorseful but not repentant and never went back to Christ to seek forgiveness.
One of the sobering reminders of our Christian faith is that evil originated before us. We believe in a devil, a personal force of evil, who seeks to harm us simply out of hate, not because of anything we did. Luke chapter 22 says Satan entered Judas before he betrayed Christ. Now we can’t fall into the mental trap of, to borrow a once popular expression, “the devil made me do it.” In most circumstances, we are in control of how we behave and the choices we make. It was Judas’s choices and lack of integrity of heart that allowed Satan to influence him; but he owned his choices regardless.
Will blamed himself incorrectly for everything that had happened to him. It certainly would have been appropriate for him to hold himself accountable for certain poor choices he made, but not for the choice of his abuser. This was too extreme. It was only Sean, acting like a reflection of Christ in that poignant scene, who moved closer and closer to Will, all the while being loving, gentle and steadfast, even when Will physically pushes him away, who made the young man realize the abuse he suffered was not his fault. Previous to this, in many of their sessions and discussions, Sean did hold Will accountable for the choices he owned. Christ did the same thing with the adulteress when He told her to go and sin nor more. He held her accountable for her past actions, and by telling her to sin no more, also held her accountable for her future choices, but gently and lovingly set her on the path to redemption.
This is the redemptive place we all need to get to – taking full responsibility for our choices, growing in the Lord so we can discern what our fault is and what is not our fault, and always being honest with ourselves and others. In keeping with the theme of this blog site, continually living sacramentally is the key to drawing nearer and nearer to God so we attain the humility, wisdom and authenticity needed and avoid the extremes of harsh judgment or excuses.