“In my opinion, all men are islands. And what’s more, now’s the time to be one. This is an island age… You can make yourself a little island paradise. With the right supplies – and more importantly, the right attitude – you can be sun-drenched, tropical, a magnet for young Swedish tourists. And I like to think, perhaps, I’m that kind of island.” – Will, About A Boy
About a Boy is a rich dialogue partner for Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. Let’s look at three key points of connection between them.
A Primer on Human Love
The “island life” manifesto is our introduction to the shallow, but firm philosophy of Will Freeman, the 38-year-old bachelor who literally, does nothing. His “nothing,” of course, consists of anything that fits his criteria of being self-serving, fun, commitment-free and satisfying to him. From fast cars, to trendy flats and sexual conquests, Marcus interacts with the world on his terms, to his advantage.
Watching him, it seems plausible that Nick Hornby, the British author who first created Will, looked to Bonhoeffer’s description of human love for inspiration. In his chapter, “Community,” Bonhoeffer writes:
“Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake…has little regard for truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person. Human love desires the other person…but it does not serve him. On the contrary, it desires even when it appears to be serving,” (p. 34).
Will’s world is soon interrupted by the boy, Marcus Brewer. Marcus is equally a victim of human love, though it’s more emotional and outside his control. He’s the son of Fiona – a depressed, suicidal hippie who leans on Marcus for emotional support, which he of course strives to provide. This causes Marcus a fair amount of anxiety, insecurity and social ostracization from his peers.
Bonhoeffer writes of “human absorption” where, “the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul,” (p. 33). Though well intentioned, the relational fusion of Fiona is crushing Marcus and distorting who he should be as a young person. We cringe as Fiona calls to Marcus across the crowded schoolyard, “Marcus, I love you!” Which of course is met by the snickers and jeers of his schoolmates.
We may not be living the vapid lifestyle of Will, or reliving the trauma of adolescence like Marcus, but we can see ourselves in them. In your work have you experienced or witnessed relationships that appear to serve others, but in fact are the opposite? Have you used your influence to “draw into your spell” others for your own benefit, or had that done to you only to have it backfire? How has that affected your work community?
The Power of Proclaiming
The influence, abuse and eventual redemptive use of words play a major role in About a Boy. Early on, lies, assumptions, accusations, insults and misrepresentations from the characters break down community. However, as Will and Marcus’ unlikely friendship begins, moments of empathy and truth occur. Will makes the effort to ask Marcus how it’s going at home with his mom following her suicide attempt:
Will: It still bothers you then?
Marcus: “Does it bother me…” [Voice over: Every single day. That’s why I come here instead of going home.] “Yeah, when I think about.”
Will: …F#!%ing hell.
Marcus: [Voice over: I didn’t know why he swore like that, but it made me feel better. It made me feel like it wasn’t being pathetic to get so scared.]
Bonhoeffer describes “The Ministry of Proclaiming” as, “that unique situation in which one person bears witness in human words to another.” He warns though that, “The speaking of that Word is beset with infinite perils. If it is not accompanied by worthy listening, how can it really be the right word for the other person? …If it issues, not from a spirit of bearing and forbearing, but from impatience and the desire to force acceptance, how can it be the liberating and healing word?” (p. 104)
For Marcus and Will, this marks the beginning of many liberating and healing conversations. At times it’s contentious – similar to what Bonhoeffer calls “admonition” and “ “the severity of God,” (p. 104). Eventually though, they both experience the ministry of proclamation that leads to healing and liberation from their mutual isolation.
Have you been a part of conversations of “infinite peril” that have brought liberation or healing? What were they like? Conversely, have you experienced a feeling of “forced acceptance” that lacked a “spirit of bearing and forbearing” in how someone spoke to you?
A Vision for the Other
Bonhoeffer writes that we must meet people only as they already are in Christ’s eyes; that we “must release them from every attempt…to regulate, coerce and dominate,” them with our love (p. 36). “Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; that image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.” (p. 36). This kind of love breeds freedom in the life of a community.
Marcus and Will help one another discover the “true image” of who they can be in relationship with others. Even as Will works to change and use Marcus for his own benefit, he suddenly realizes that Marcus was the one changing him. He reflects at one point, “For a moment, I loved him, really loved him.”
Will finally crosses over to the realization that what matters is a vision of another free from his own needs. He experiences a sacrificial love based on a vision for what is best for Marcus, not what Marcus can do for him. This culminates in the talent show scene where Marcus, again, in an attempt to make his mother feel better, is about to drive off the social cliff. Incredibly, Will does the last thing he ever imagined: he puts on his guitar and joins Marcus onstage to sing in public. Not only does Will save Marcus from making a complete fool of himself, he deflects and absorbs the ridicule headed towards the boy.
The movie ends at Christmas at Will’s place – this time- full of his new community, and a new vision of his island philosophy: “Every man is an island. But clearly, some men are part of island chains. Below the surface of the ocean they’re actually connected.”
How would your relationships change (in your personal life, and at work) if they were freed from any degree of coercion? What would it look like to attempt to meet people as they are in Christ’s eyes? How would your relationships change if your priority became to help co-workers discover the vision Christ has for them vs. a vision for how they can serve you or the employer’s needs alone? Do you think this is possible?