This article was first published on Culturewatch.org. © Tony Watkins, 2010
The beginning of a new year is a time to pause and reflect on things in our lives that need to change. We long to jettison old habits and replace them with new, healthier ones. Most of us, though, fail to achieve a fraction of what we hope for.
Occasionally we long for a fresh start, and we purposefully make some choice that might give us one. We marry, relocate, retrain or de-clutter. But the most far-reaching changes in life often come unlooked for and unwanted. Many people have faced redundancy in recent months; others have experienced serious illness or suffered bereavement. Such things come out of the blue, leaving us reeling and wondering how we will ever adjust.
This is the experience of Joe (Clive Owen) in The Boys are Back, based on the memoirs of Simon Carr. It’s the story of a man whose wife dies of cancer, and who is utterly at a loss to know how to bring up his two sons. It is a particularly traumatic situation, but the emotional rollercoaster he finds himself on is, to some extent, familiar to many of us.
Simon says that, though parts of his story were changed for the film, he was ‘stunned’ to see ‘some of the most devastating and most wonderful moments of his life’ on screen. In the film, the change in Joe’s life is cataclysmic, and he has no option but to move forward. In an opening voiceover, he says, ‘I wouldn’t be the first to say that life is a journey that must be travelled, no matter how hard the road.’ He learns quickly that we cannot simply sit by the roadside of life; we must somehow keep going, even when that means only being able to think of putting one foot in front of the other.
Joe’s high-flying, pressurised career as a sports journalist in Australia means that he has been away from the family more often than not. He relied entirely on his wife to look after the home, but now he must find new ways of living that will enable him to juggle both sides of life.
Joe’s approach to dealing with his boys is unconventional. He decides to, ‘Just say “Yes”’, reasoning that so many of the rules parents impose are petty, leading to unnecessary stress and conflict. The mischief which results from this ‘free-range parenting’ is exuberant and good-natured rather than malicious, and it creates strong male bonding. It may also create some problems but, crucially, Joe’s attitude enables him to be positive about parenting, rather than letting it become an additional pressure.
Simon Carr recalls a moment, which is dramatised in the film, when his younger son jumped from a window sill into the bath creating an enormous splash. Simon’s first instinct was to stop him, but he didn’t. Now he says, ‘On my dying day, I will . . . remember the exhilarating joy on my son’s face.’
Joe gets many things wrong, but one thing he does get right is to change his priorities. He begins to put relationships first. At least, he puts the relationship with his sons first. For a time he labours under the misapprehension that he needs to do everything single-handedly, but gradually he learns that he needs to work at relationships with others, too. And that means accepting their help.
Joe’s determination to make life as positive as possible, and his admission that he needs others’ practical and emotional support are crucial in enabling him to navigate this rough stretch of life’s journey. They don’t by any means make the road smooth, but they are key in helping him get through them.
For Christians, these factors have even greater significance because of the experience of God’s grace. Grace enables forgiven people to be positive because the biggest of all life’s problems has been dealt with. Grace teaches us that we can’t do it all on our own; we need others and, even more importantly, we need God. Above all, grace doesn’t simply help us cope with change; it transforms us.