Originally posted on Facebook–December, 2012
Monty: Why did you say that I was a loser?
Simon Wilder: Winners forget they’re in a race, they just love to run. You try too hard.
~From With Honors (1994)
This evening, I took a break from studying and watched what is one of my favorite—if not my favorite—movie, With Honors, starring Joe Pesci (Simon Wilder) and Brendan Fraser (Monty Kessler). The character of Monty Kessler is a driven, highly motivated Harvard student, whole-heartedly focused on graduating “with honors” (Summa Cum Laude) from the renowned institution. The last hurdle for Monty in achieving his goal is to complete his senior thesis. Without getting too inundated with details, Simon Wilder, a bum who lives on the campus, comes upon the only rough draft of Monty’s not-yet-completed —only 88 pages…well, now 82 page—senior thesis. Intent on reacquiring his senior thesis, Monty—who wants to get into government to help people—treats Simon as “less than human,” having him evicted from the boiler room of the Harvard library…during the cold of Winter. Simon ultimately leverages the thesis draft to survive the winter with Monty’s help.
Without ruining the movie for those who have not seen it— which I highly recommend you do if you have not—the relationship Monty is forced to develop with Mr. Wilder transforms him. The story carries such a strong message for me, that I often watch it when I feel misguided or “off the path.”
In this particular viewing of the movie, the dialogue that I used as a prelude to this note between Monty and Simon fell heavy upon me. Monty, always driven to be successful, was disturbed from a comment made by Simon the night before; calling him a “loser.” When Monty asks Simon for clarification the next day while they are both sitting in the library, Simon answers Monty with two quick statements that exude wisdom.
“Winners forget they are in a race, they just love to run. You try too hard.”
Monty says his goal is “to help people,” yet he initially did not see Simon as a person. The opportunity to serve and to help someone that was presented before him looked to him as an obstacle for him to hurdle in achieving his goal. While at some point, his intentions were likely beautiful and pure, they had been twisted by ambition, performance, and self-expectation into something far off the mark. He was misguided, and exerting ever more effort to be farther from what he stated to seek.
I began to realize, that in such a way, I am probably a loser too.
From the outside looking in, I’m sure that some people find me successful. They may look at my “loser” comment and take it as false modesty. Maybe it is a cry for attention. Those who currently view themselves negatively may be irked at the statement. When those people look at me, they see my academic background and diverse work experiences. They do not see hardship or failure. Such people have never seen—or they disregard—the person that I know so well.
In all that I invest, I am driven to excel (1 Corinthians 10:31, 2 Corinthians 8:7, Ecclesiastes 9:10). Where I have seen others focus solely on career, or wealth, I wanted to avoid such pitfalls. Relationships have long been important to me, especially those that are biblically led. Yet, regularly—and typically when I have been most invested—I have failed greatly.
If people could view my heart, they would be surprised at the paradox of love and detachment I exhibit when it comes to those I love the most. I am so focused on loving others—in accordance with the biblical definition of love—and yet I have antagonized many of the people whom I have valued most in my life…to the point where relationship with those people was lost. While I say that I believe in a redemptive God, one who can redeem any relationship—even that of man with Him through His son—I tend to become detached from rejection. How can I say that I believe in such a God—a God who took the stone the builders rejected and made it the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22)—and run away through a veiled retreat of justification? And yet, this God has definitely found use for me, regardless of my failings. I see Him present in my life—especially now while at UGA.
But what others have called achievements, they are nothing if not white-washed tombs. They are hollow achievements when seen through my eyes and bring coldness to my heart. Many of these so-called achievements have moved me away from rejection, but also from love. Why do I fear something that I desire so much?
Later on in the movie, Simon writes a message to Monty, encouraging him—in the words of famous author Walt Whitman—to no longer be a loser:
“You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, not look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books. You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, you shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.”
~Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
In these words, Simon is encouraging Monty to get out of his own way—to take off the blinders, and no longer succumb to ambition-led tunnel vision. These words suggest one exhibit humility and patience. These words suggest community and accountability. All of these characteristics are promoted as strong characteristics to possess—many virtues. And what is amazing about such characteristics or virtues, is that people often think they exhibit or possess such characteristics…when they do not. More often than not, I do not.
But, fortunately, there is hope…there is always hope.
(Warning: If you do not want to read a spoiler—at this point I would encourage you to stop reading)
Near the end of the movie, Simon dies. During the funeral, Monty reads his obituary. It reads:
“Simon B. Wilder bit it on Wednesday.”
“He saw the world out of the porthole of a leaky freighter, was a collector of memories, and interrupted a lecture at Harvard. In 50 years on earth he did only one thing he regretted. He is survived by his family: Jeff Hawks, who always remembers to flush; Everett Calloway, who knows how to use words; Courtney Blumenthal, who is strong, and also knows how to love; and by Montgomery Kessler, who will graduate life with honor, and without regret.”
Monty had changed in the eyes of Simon—and likely the eyes of anyone who watches the movie. There has never been a viewing of this movie where my eyes remain dry throughout its entirety. Monty’s redemption and directional restoration inspires me.
There is no way that I believe anyone wants to be a loser—I know that I do not. Regardless, like me, many of us unwittingly make that choice through our actions. While I have tried to change before—and thought that I had—I am not so sure that I ever did. I hope that I will, and that—like Monty—I can graduate life with honors and without regret.