“Life was, after all, like air. Will could have no doubt about that anymore. There seemed to be no way of keeping it out, or at a distance, and all he could do for the moment was live it and breathe it. How people managed to draw it down into their lungs without choking was a mystery to him: it was full of bits. This was air you could almost chew.”
– About a Boy by Nick Hornby
My end of the year reading concluded with the novel About a Boy by Nick Hornby. This isn’t a review of the book, although the book is great. It’s an assessment of Will, the main adult character in the story. At the beginning of the book we learn Will lives off a trust from his father’s success. You see, Will is in a position most men would envy; because of the royalties from his father’s estate, he has no job (he’s never had one), no commitments, no responsibilities. Hornby writes,
“The twenty-year-old Will would have been surprised and perhaps disappointed to learn that he would reach the age of thirty-six without finding a life for himself, but the thirty-six-year-old Will wasn’t particularly unhappy about it; there was less clutter that way.”
Single guys, as a general rule, don’t really feel a great need for deep relationships, or a pressing desire to enter into the commitments of marriage and family. As it’s often been said, most single men are simply boys, bigger, deeper voice, more hair, and hopefully a little smarter. And as a general rule guys are a little selfish and egotistical. Our self evaluation usually doesn’t go any deeper than trying to figure how to get what we want – women, pleasure, food, more pleasure, and more women.
In About a Boy, Will does a bit of self evaluation, but if that leads anywhere out of his comfort zone, he does a 180, turning back to what is comfortable. Will doesn’t do well with conflict. He prefers peace at all costs.
Will’s friends John and Christine, married with two young children, mistakenly judge him to be more multifaceted and insightful than he is. In the book, one interchange between John and Will goes like this:
“We’ve always thought you have hidden depths,” said John.
“Ah, but you see I haven’t. I am this shallow.”
And in the movie based on the book starring Hugh Grant as Will, another exchange:
Christine: “You will end up childless and alone.”
Will: “Well, fingers crossed, yeah.”
With no commitments of any kind, and nothing that would normally bring some kind of consequences for his actions, Will has never had to grow up. Hornby writes in the book:
“Doing nothing all day gave him endless opportunities to dream and scheme and pretend to be something he wasn’t.”
Will’s general outlook on life is expressed here by his character in the movie:
“All men are islands. And what’s more, this is the time to be one. This is an island age. A hundred years ago, for example, you had to depend on other people. No one had TV or CDs or DVDs or home espresso makers.”
But circumstances ensnare Will, along with seemingly innocent choices on his part (in his estimation) and he embarks down the road he’s avoided all his life. He begins to see, to his surprise, the value in caring for someone other than himself. And Will, though he is barely grown up himself, becomes a mentor.
What all guys need as they transition from boyhood into men and beyond are responsibilities and commitments, doing and acting in a way that make their own world and as a result the world around them a better place. Becoming part of a committed relationship, and then moving on to starting a family, is part of the “circle of life.”
That’s what the last minute jitters the groom gets before the wedding are all about. He may not realize it at the time, but this step is a natural progression in growing up. Taking on responsibility, depending on others, and having others depend on you. That’s what it really means to become a man. Being a friend, being a husband, becoming a father; those are the characteristics of manhood. A very small number of men will become president or do something great like finding a cure for cancer. But every man has a very good chance of making a big impact in many lives by making commitments to others and raising a family.
Speaking before the graduating class at Harvard, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series sums it up nicely, “We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already.”
I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock, I am an island
I have my books and my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock, I am an island
And a rock can feel no pain
And an island never cries
– Paul Simon, Lyrics from I am a Rock