The Best Four Dollars I Ever Spent (Twice)

On a cold rainy night my sophomore year of college, my roommate was out of town. I decided to be my best introvert-self so I headed to the video store in search of a good story. This particular video store had a bin near the front that was full of old discounted VHS movies they didn't see fit to rent out anymore. This was always my go-to spot, and I went digging.

There were some really terrible movies in that bin, like the kind of movies that are not quite bad enough to fulfill the so-bad-it's-good movie requirements, but bad enough that you wonder who in their right mind would fund its production. But that night the bargain bin had a treasure for me: Good Will Hunting, $4.00. I hadn't seen it before, and it was only a dollar more to buy this copy than to rent it. So I headed out with my new movie in hand.

I don't remember the exact details of what happened inside me after I pressed play, except that some thoughts like these that ran through my head: "Why aren't more people like this Sean Maguire character?" (played by Robin Williams), and "I bet doctoral degrees cost a fortune," and "How on earth did a couple of 20-something-year-olds write this??"

Though I remember those thoughts being fast and fleeting, I remember one thing very clearly: that was the night I decided I wanted to pursue being a counselor.

For lots of reasons too personal to mention here, it took me ten years to get my masters in Professional Counseling, but every job I've ever done since that moment has included some form of walking alongside people in a lot of pain. Arguably, the innate gifts needed to be a counselor lie within a person, but meaningful stories like Good Will Hunting can awaken such gifts in a person and open our eyes to new desires and aspirations. (In my mind, this is one of the purposes of story-telling.)

I remember this film revealing to me some of the differences between popular mental health/person care and quality mental health/person care. This was pretty big considering when the story was written, the mental health field was just beginning to shed its stigmas. The subtle commentary made by this film about the importance of the quality of care may have even helped the field of counseling become what it is today. Who knows.

I also remember this film busting a myth for me. It made me realize therapists don't have special powers, they are not superhuman. Quite the opposite in fact.

One essential quality of a "good" therapist or helper is a clear awareness of one's own strengths & limitations without being more focused on these things than he/she is on the person directly in front of them.

A "good" therapist isn't using the person he is helping to make him feel good about himself or good at his job. When I heard Curt Thompson (a deeply dear and wise helper) speak in Philadelphia last Spring, he invited us to ask ourselves this question: Do you ever unconsciously categorize a therapy session as a “good session" simply because it makes you feel like a good therapist? (Ouch. But also, thank you.) This is a lesson well-taught in Good Will Hunting. The main character, Will, cycles through several "shrinks" before meeting one who cares more about Will than he does about feeling like a good therapist.

Fast forward several years.

Last Monday (quite poignantly, a day before the one year anniversary of Robin Williams's death) I was running errands and came across my old friend, the video bargain bin. I went digging. And before I knew it I had a DVD in my hand and I was headed for the register with a smile that must have made it look like I just heard an inside joke.

Good Will Hunting, $4.00.

How does anyone get this lucky TWICE in a lifetime?!, I asked myself. That night my husband and I watched it, and I realized that I appreciate this film more every time I watch it. I also pondered just how ahead of its time it was. And how ahead of my time it was, and how surprisingly formative it's been in making me the therapist I am today.

I may not have realized this as a sophomore in college, but when I watched this film it may have been the first time I realized (before I even really realized) how much being a good listener and helper requires a total revamping of one's measuring stick for and definition of “success.”

Have you ever stopped to consider what may be happening in moments where there is what we may call deafening silence? At least in the Western world, we seem to be programmed to automatically believe that nothing is happening when there is no sound or motion. It makes people feel awkward and compels them to fill the silence, perhaps believing silence and stillness is a waste of time. I disagree with that, however.

What if, in the midst of silence, an internal something that is far bigger and more important than any external counterpart is occurring?

In the film, Will and Sean (his "shrink") have at least two sessions where literally no words are spoken. Does this have any value or is this a huge waste of time and money? I think we're inclined to say, "This is a waste. No progress is being made." This story, however, gives a very realistic example of the power of silence. These dead-silent sessions end up being crucial moments where the therapist earns Will's trust. The movie never comes out and says this explicitly, but I think when Will’s therapist shows him he can handle the silence, he also shows Will that he can handle a lot of other things that normally make people uncomfortable.

Sean, the therapist, chooses the person over an attempt to have something clear to “show” by the end of session. This builds a bridge between them that leads to actual change instead of just “results.”

Now, I know this is just a story, and one story at that. But it’s a really good story. And I can now say after many years of experience with people, it's actually pretty realistic. If you are a therapist, a social worker, a professor, a helper of any kind, please watch this movie again and again. You will see new things each time. It will open up new hidden things in you, I would bravely bet. And if nothing else, you will get a taste of what good listening looks like.

Food for further thought: If you are in a helping profession, what are some barriers for you as you seek to find balance between empirically-sound care for people and the kind of care that can’t necessarily be measured in an hour? Who helps keep you in balance?