Good Will Hunting is an excellent movie. I don’t think I need to qualify that statement in any way, shape or form. It’s a gut wrenching look at the struggles of a boy caught between the tragedy of his youth and the promise of his adulthood; he is forced to come to terms with himself in all his complexities. There is, two-thirds of the way through the film, a particularly poignant scene of emotional and psychological importance not only to Will, but to the audience as well. In the cluttered, suburban office of psychologist Sean Maguire, the audience becomes fully aware of the horrors of Will’s past. I refer of course to the “it’s not your fault” scene, a scene saddled by the revelation of Will’s abuse within the foster system and his admittance of his own psychological trauma. While we, as men, may not all be unfairly saddled with the mental and physical burdens of a brutal beating, we all carry our own, individual burdens. To some, these feel as heavy and as viscerally painful as a blow from a wrench; mental health issues can bring just as much physical pain.
The primacy of this scene was brought all too clearly into our homes this past August. Robin Williams, the man who played Sean Maguire as a caring and experienced psychologist, lost his own battle with mental illness. It was relatively well known that Mr. Williams suffered from depression, a disease that had eaten away at his ability to cope with his own struggles in life. Depression, as some of us know, is not the flu. It has no cure, no magic bullet. You learn to deal a little better every day but sometimes, life can just beat you down until that black shadow of yourself wins, as it did with him. While Mr. William’s death was certainly an unimaginable tragedy there are lessons to be learned from the experience. Lessons about humanity, lessons about healing, and lessons about masculinity.
If you look below the surface, it should be obvious to you that something is rotten in the state of our manhood. The overwhelming majority of suicide cases in this country are men, and men suffer from much higher rates of violent death and risk taking behavior. We suffer from a range of endemic mental issues that are difficult to see if you don’t look hard. But you really don’t need to look hard. You just need to look at yourself and your peers. We, as men, suffer from a lack of openness about our mental health just as much as our physical health. We are hemmed in by a burdensome series of cultural expectations as to what it means to be a man, one where any show of distress or cry for help can be seen as a sign of weakness. A sign that we aren’t a “real man.” The image of a “real man” is of a stalwart colossus, an individual who takes everything in stride with nary a whimper.
What, then, is the best image of a “real man” in today’s society? In my esteemed opinion, John Wayne. He’s rugged, stoic, refuses to show feeling, and is unfazed by any wound, mental or physical. Any list of adjectives for John Wayne would no doubt omit “open”. In films Wayne’s character was often his own prison keeper, a trait that is equally as common in our day-to-day lives as it was on the big screen. As a result, we lash out at our loved ones, we fall into depression, we put our fist through a wall, we drink and drive. In the end, we hurt the one person we have to live with for the longest time: ourselves. This wall of stoicism and the resulting un-emotive lifestyle has the same debilitating effect on our overall health as long term smoking, eating poorly, or wallowing in alcohol: it cheats us of the ability to enjoy our time on earth and live a long, healthy, fulfilling life. If only there was a way to alleviate this pain.
Probably the only thing that John Wayne never does to fix his problems is talk about them. The wall of masculine stoicism posits that any show of emotion is a sign of weakness. Any distress or discomfort, a sign of cowardice. Would you be able to survive in any relationship without communicating your feelings? How about communicating with yourself or about yourself to another? Simply communicating what has been worrying your mind for weeks or months can be an incredibly liberating experience. Confessing your fear, your guilt, your anxiety can alleviate a good deal of the mental stressors we accumulate in life. In the right situations and with the right people, it can save your life. It saved mine.
For two-thirds of my life I’ve suffered from a diagnosed anxiety disorder. For many years I was unable to do well in school and unable to make friends. As a ten-year-old child I would routinely be unable to sleep for days on end. Anxiety was literally ruining my life before I even got a chance to live it. I’m one of the lucky ones though. My parents and educators weren’t stuck in the unhelpful mire of our culture’s traditional masculinity. I was able to get help from a wonderful psychologist who helped me deal with these thoughts, impulses, habits, and traumas which were the root cause of my issues. For over a decade I was able to live a life with an average amount of stress; I slept well, lived well, and had fun. The overwhelming majority of my symptoms disappeared and I lived as average a life as any other. One recent exception to my “sobriety”, so to speak, has forced me to reflect on my experiences with mental health issues. Lately the stresses of graduate school have taken its tole on me, causing a near debilitating hike in my levels of anxiety. I sank low. I hated myself. For weeks I was in a severely depressive state alleviated only by the sleep which followed my half-hearted attempts at completing my school-work. Thanks to my earlier experiences with openness and communication I was able to recognize many of the signs of my anxiety that I hadn’t seen for over a decade. Critical in this process of introspection was an open emotionally communicative relationship I have with my mother. Thanks to being open and honest about my mental state I was able to get help and move forward. I’m back to being the goofy and sarcastic person I am. The critical takeaway lesson is that none of my improvement would have been achieved if I wasn’t willing to be open about it.
I’m going to ask something small of you gentlemen. It’s as labor intensive as shaving in the morning. I’m not asking you to carve a home from the wilderness or write a book on string theory. I’m just asking you to change your idea of masculinity just a little. I’m asking you to be open. Tell your mom about your stresses, talk to your best friend about your girl/boy. To be open to seeing a therapist if it affects your day-to-day life. Because you, your happiness, and your well being are worth it. Don’t be a statistic; be an emotionally open and aware man. And just as important, be an emotionally open friend, brother, father, boyfriend, or stranger. It could save a life.