I do some work as a volunteer matchmaker for an international website. Primarily, I work with 40-year olds, and occasionally I encourage some of my bachelor friends to join the website. I am surprised at their reluctance to join considering the fact all of them tell me about their desire to settle down and have a family. One tells me he is too busy, another that he prefers to meet real people and not to meet people on an impersonal website. Another says that friends are setting him up and this is not a good time for him to put his profile on the website. Time marches on and I still hear the same refrains. As a rabbi and personal friend, I feel sad and troubled. I cannot say it with certainty, but it seems that these friends want no responsibility, even if the alternative is to be alone. They may not say it, but their actions speak louder than their words. They enjoy a life where they are accountable to no one, where there is no emotional investment in any significant other.
Such is the life portrayed by Will Lightman in About a Boy, a hilarious look at the self-indulgent life of the career bachelor. Will narrates his own story. He has no job and lives off the royalties of a popular holiday song that his father wrote in 1958. He goes to a single parents’ group to meet single mothers, fabricating a story about a two-year old son of his to gain their sympathy and trust. He spends his time shopping, watching television, and exercising, which to him means playing pool. To Will, he leads a full life. He exclaims: “A person’s life is like a TV show. I was the star of the Will Show, and the Will Show was not an ensemble drama. Guests came and went. It came down to me.” Considering how “busy” he is, he wonders if he really would even have time for a job.
Will’s life begins to change when he meets Marcus, a young boy with a suicidal mother. Through a series of improbable events, he befriends Marcus and slowly starts to think of the welfare of others. Will buys Marcus sneakers and marvels that “I made a boy happy, and it was only 60 quid.” At a Christmas party, he begins to understand the importance of human connection. He leaves the party with a “warm, fuzzy feeling.” The stark realization that his present life is meaningless occurs when Will meets the love of his life and discovers he has nothing to say to her. He has no job. He is a blank slate.
Ultimately, Will concludes that Marcus is the only thing that means something to him and Will finally comes out of his self-centered self to help Marcus at a moment of crisis. Connection with Marcus leads to connection with others, and Will becomes a more rounded individual at the story’s end.
King David writes in Psalms that “those that sow in tears will reap in joy.” The commentators suggest that this means we should be mindful of the pain of others in order to feel true joy. Living an isolated life, without feeling the travail of others, is leading a life without meaning; for it is only in connection with others that our own life becomes meaningful. The Ethics of the Fathers states it differently: if I am only for myself, what am I?” About a Boy reminds us that leading a life of meaning requires one to think of others, not just of oneself.