Why “Good Will Hunting” is so Important, and Why you MUST Watch it Again.

I will warn you in advance… This blog entry contains movie spoilers.

A lot of people, it seems, have quite an emotional response to the two-time Oscar winning film Good Will Hunting. The film’s success is clearly reflected within its awards and figures, but most people who have seen the film seem to draw something deeper from it. Often it is a very on the surface account of the plot that is given by people to explain their emotional attraction to the film. It is, after all, a rollercoaster of a ride. It begins with a troubled young man – who can only be described as a genius – who works as a janitor at MIT; the film ultimately ends with him being in a much better place than he was before – a true underdog story. However, I feel as though this summary does not do the film nor the viewer justice. I would go as far as saying that Good Will Hunting is the most important Hollywood film ever made from a philosophical perspective. If viewed through the lens I am about to offer now, I think the film can give you great insight about yourself, your own life and the direction of your life and own being.

I want to focus on what I believe to be the most important part of the film (at least from a philosophical perspective): the relationship and discussions between Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) and his counsellor Sean Maguire (played by the legendary Robin Williams). Will Hunting, who is the main character, is a 20 year old boy genius, capable of effortlessly solving mathematical problems that award-winning mathematicians struggle with. Will, however, and mainly due to his history, has what one might describe as a bleak view on life; he is very nihilistic, and spends most of his time avoiding all meaning and responsibility in fear of being emotionally hurt. Sean Maguire, on the other hand, is the complete opposite to Will. He is a middle-aged man, who wears his heart on his sleeve but is also very intelligent. Sean had lived a life of meaning; he had been married to the love of his life for years, until she died of cancer. A lot of the key conversations between Will and Sean seem to revolve around love, relationships and pain.

On the topic of relationships, Will and Sean, yet again, are at two polar opposites. Will, who begins dating a girl and seemingly falls in love with her, refuses to commit himself emotionally or even admit his feelings to himself and others. Sean, as we know, was romantically and wholly committed to his wife, who he clearly loved very much. In short, Will is afraid of getting hurt, whereas Sean has been hurt in the most tragic of ways. When Will questions Sean over this, Sean says that he has no regrets, because it was worth spending all that time with the love of his life, despite his pain. This is what we call meaning, and Will refuses to see it. For anything meaningful to occur, there must be some pain along the way. To give a common and obvious example, somebody who is looking for a long-term partner is likely to experience heartbreak at least once on the road to a relationship. It is very much like the Yin and Yang symbol – there can be no white without black, no love without pain and no happiness without sorrow. But Will undertakes what Sean (and others) describe as a “super philosophy”. Will’s life philosophy was as follows: never get close to anybody or anything, never commit to anything meaningful, because that way you can’t get hurt. But, as Sean constantly tries to point out to Will, how can one lead a meaningful or happy life with such a philosophy? I would, if you have not discovered this deeper philosophical plot already, recommend watching the film again. But, instead of just viewing the conversations between Sean and Will as therapy sessions, view them as philosophical battlegrounds, because that’s what they essentially are.

But it is not only the therapy discussions between Will and Sean which are extremely philosophical, but the entire films plot within itself. What is most interesting is that the film seems to be an inflated version of the discussions between Will and Sean; or, between meaning and nihilism. Everything from Will’s relationships, education, social life and career is a constant flirtation from nihilism to meaningfulness and responsibility. He dips his toe into the pool of responsibility, but then always seems to end up refusing to take the plunge (until the very end of the film, at least).

Now, the question is, what can watching this film tell us about ourselves and our own lives? Quite a lot, I think. I’ll give you my own personal experience of this. When I first watched the film, I was about fifteen years old. At this time in my life, mainly due to personal reasons, I was very nihilistic and negative. I took a very similar view as Will in terms of how one should live life. However, from the ages of around 17-18, I undertook a huge personal transformation. I now actively seek meaning and responsibility, and in short, I would now identify with Sean’s outlook on life rather than Will’s. When I first watched the film, I found myself (for obvious reasons) sympathizing and relating to Will more. But watching the film for the second time as a nineteen year old, after this huge personal transformation, I found myself whole heartedly admiring Sean, and almost egging Will on to take the plunge every time he dipped his toe into the pool of meaning.

The film, as far as I can see, can be used as a good measure on one’s life. Given these two contrasting characters, and the running theme of nihilism vs meaning throughout the entire film, it can be used as a tool to discover where you – or somebody else – is in terms of the way they live their life and how they view more specific things such as family, friendships and romantic relationships. I found, on second viewing of the film and general reflection, that my views on life have swayed dramatically, and I am now reaping the rewards of that, and living a much fuller and more meaningful life. I would be very interested to hear how others perceive the underlining philosophical battle within the film. So, I would highly recommend watching the film again, especially if you have undergone a huge personal transformation since the last time you watched it. And, I can guarantee you, that it will reveal a bit more about yourself than you’d expect.

Part 1: What is Meaning, and is Our Society Meaningless?

I would like to, if I may, begin this series by starting at the very beginning of all things (according to some): The Book of Genesis. As many of you will already know, according to the Biblical story, God created the world and the universe in seven days (but resting on the seventh), and from the hand of God sprung the human race and all other life forms. God’s first two humans, Adam and Eve, were placed in the wonderful Utopia of Eden. I’m sure many of you know what follows: Adam and Eve ate fruit from the forbidden tree, after caving in to the temptation of the Serpent. They did, as you could probably imagine, enjoy the fruit. It was, as pointed out by God in the Bible, the most succulent and delicious fruit in the entire garden. However, despite its luxurious taste, eating it came at a cost – the cost of unleashing pain, sin and suffering upon the entire human race, forever and always.

If you do not take kindly to religious stories, then I may be able to tempt you with the fantasy world of JRR Tolkien. (For those of you who have not read The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings, I will warn you that this paragraph contains “spoilers”). In The Hobbit, a young hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins wins a magical ring from the creature Gollum in a game of riddles. Over the years, thanks to the powerful spell of the magical One Ring, Bilbo begins to wither and feel “stretched”. When the time comes for him give up the ring he does, at first, refuse bluntly. The spell of the ring, despite tearing a hole within him, makes him feel good, powerful and can be used as a quick escape from his fellow Hobbits (who Bilbo considers to be an annoyance). But when Bilbo finally gives up the ring – with a bit of help from his old friend Gandalf – he goes on to live a tranquil life in the company of Elves. Perhaps a more striking example from the world of Tolkien is the story of Isildur, who was handed the chance to destroy the ring many years before Bilbo was even born, ridding the world of its evil before it could do any further harm. But instead Isildur gave in to temptation – he thought of only himself in the present, not himself in the long-term, or the rest of Middle-Earth for centuries to come.

I will now move away from the tales of religion and fantasy fiction, and enter the realm of real life. Picture, if you will, and twenty-five-year-old female. She is unemployed by mere choice, and spends most of her time sat on her sofa smoking cannabis, whilst watching daytime television. This is a very real scenario for some, and I’m sure that we all know somebody who lives a similar, if not mirrored, lifestyle to the semi-fictional person I have just described. She could, of course, logically justify her lifestyle: she doesn’t have to work, so she can just sit around all day relaxing, doing what she enjoys, living responsibility free on her regular state benefit. The cannabis she smokes leaves her relaxed, it makes her feel happy. But, the real question, which is also raised in the two examples given above, is what does this do for her life and the life of others as she goes on, as she ages?

Some of you may have already noticed, but there is a common theme running throughout the given examples. Some might say we have stumbled upon an Archetype. Stories of people doing long-term harm to both themselves and others in exchange for quick and often sensory pleasures have existed within our societies for thousands of years. It’s here, I believe, that we discover the answer to the first part of the titles question (what is meaning?). Meaning, in the sense of having meaning in your actions and life, is doing something that is not only good for yourself, but good for others too. But more specifically, it is doing those things to cause good in the long-term, not just the short. As demonstrated in the above examples, it is easy to sacrifice long-term prosperity and meaning for extremely short-lived feelings of positivity and pleasure. To a lot of us, it may seem logical to chase as many of these highs as we can, and just hope that they last and recycle themselves enough times so you can go to the grave a happy man. But as the wisdom of our elders teach us, this is simply not the case. Many middle-aged and elderly people – and even some young people – will openly tell you that they regret the time they spent “fooling around”. It would, if Adam and Eve were to take greater responsibility and look for deeper meaning in their actions, have been wise of them to resist the Serpents temptation, and refused to have eaten the fruit in order to blockade the terrorising rage of their creator, and therefore saving themselves and their descendants from the pain of suffering. The same applies with Isildur – had he cast the ring into Mount Doom, destroying it once and for all, he would have saved millions of lives, including his own. So, what do these fictional characters, and real people, all from completely different worlds, have in common? It’s extremely simple: they all made the common mistake of exchanging long-term peace and joy for instant and short-lived pleasure.

Now that I have explained what I believe to be the definition of meaning – in the sense of having a meaningful life – we must now ask the second given question: Is our society meaningless? Firstly, and above all, it is important to understand that the title of this series is, in fact, bogus. When I say “finding meaning in a meaningless society”, what I really mean is finding meaning within yourself and your own personal life, whilst living in a meaningless society. But, nonetheless, the content of our society, so to speak, is more likely to lead you towards the “short-term pleasure” path, rather than the pursuit of meaning. Also, if we all stride to live a life of meaning, then our societies too would look, to some extent, different. So, what are these traps laid out by our own society?

We must begin with ideology. Practically all of us are invested in an ideology for one reason or another. Whether you’re a Marxist, a Fascist, a Liberal, a Conservative, a Humanist or a Christian, you have an ideology. For many, their ideology is relatively harmless. For some, admittedly, it may even give them some purpose and, dare I say, meaning in their lives. It is not so much the political allegiances or set of religious beliefs of your ordinary man/woman that causes you and others harm, rather the arena in which these ideas manifest and clash (society). It would be too much for me to ask every individual to shred their ideology, and I would even argue, to a huge extent, that having a set of fixed beliefs is simply part of being a modern and evolved human. However, there is one huge problem with ideologies: they are fixed ideas, and for many, causes people to refuse to accept questions or criticisms of their beliefs without becoming defensive or upset, let alone giving them the openness to change their beliefs. Truth is key to finding the meaning in your life, as in order to discover what is good for both you and others, you must be open ears to all sides of the spectrum. In other words, we all must accept that we get things wrong in order to better ourselves and our society, no matter how attached we are to a certain set of beliefs.

Perhaps one of the most obvious threats to finding “deeper meaning” (a rather hippyish phrase, I must admit), would be the current economy of consumerism. We know, or at least those of us who follow economics know, that the success of an economy, and to some extent a society, is measured by economic growth. Of course, we should be very thankful that we live in such a rich and vibrant country, but it feels as though many of us are falling into a trap. The craving of clothes, superb mobile phones, jewellery, and many other material things, is at the forefront of most of our lives; it’s what makes the economy tick. This is not to say that I do not enjoy indulging myself in such things from time to time, it would be hypocritical of anybody to say they don’t. However, what one owns, particularly when it comes to products branded by a simple logo or name, dominates and drives a huge section of our society. Material possessions and money, for many people, are easily used as a short-term stimulus (like the One Ring or the forbidden fruit).

The rise in Liberalism has also had, in many aspects, a negative effect within our societies here in the West. This is not to say that it is a bad thing (I would consider myself a Classical Liberal, if I were forced to put a label on myself); I would much rather live in our Liberal society rather than, say, Saudi Arabia; and I am a passionate believer in freedom and personal responsibility, which Liberalism opens up for us. However, it is vital for us all to remember that Liberalism does not mean discarding all responsibility for both yourself and others, and I feel as though some use Liberalism as an excuse to do this. Although we have the freedom to sit around all day doing nothing, spend hours doing drugs, refuse to work, abandon your children or partner, does not automatically mean that that is the right thing to do.

I could, if I really wanted to rant (which is tempting), write paragraph upon paragraph of what I think is wrong with our society. However, I will not burden you with such a painful course of reading. This is mainly because finding meaning within our society has more to do with yourself than it does with those around you. Yes, as I have pointed out, there are a lot of material comforts, time wasting and instinctive actions to achieve short-term pleasure within our lives, but that does not mean you have to abide by the ways of others.

So, in short, to answer the question of is our society meaningless?; yes, our society is meaningless… But, that does not mean life is and that your own life must be. In this series I will be looking at unavoidable aspects and stages of every human’s life, from growing up to stabilising oneself. It is important to realise and remember that this isn’t, and never will be, a moral guidebook. In fact, this series has absolutely nothing to do with morality, and I have never believed for one second that I, or anybody else for that matter, is in the position to give advice on morals and ethics. It is not my intention to demonstrate how people should live their lives, but rather to express ways in which I believe can help us in our quest for a meaningful life (something we all want, I would hope).

To conclude Part 1 of this series, I would just like to expand on the importance of your own individuality. In the words of the great Carl Jung (the father of Analytical Psychology) – someone who will be getting another mention in this series later on – “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”. No matter what your position in life may be, there are always ways in which we can strive to better ourselves, and by bettering yourself you naturally better those around you by sheer influence, and from that will spring the meaning of your life. As the old saying goes “charity begins at home, but does not end there”, and in this case, each individual is their own “home”, and fixing your home will only have a positive effect on the whole neighbourhood.