I didn’t recognize Walter when I saw him at a gas station last week. That’s understandable since I hadn’t seen him for 15 years, but there was something else — something more basic.
When I knew Walter, he was addicted to pills and alcohol. He lived down the street from me. He was unhappily married and had turned to substances to numb his pain. By the time his wife left him and they lost their home, he looked like a bum most of the time. I never knew what became of him.
The man who called out my name at the gas station looked nothing like a bum. There was something familiar about his eyes, but my memory couldn’t place him. I had to ask who he was.
After he told me, I smiled and shook his hand. He was sitting in a Mercedes looking like a business executive, not like a bum or an addict. We chatted for a couple of moments as I stood there, but I couldn’t ask the real question on my mind. He knew what I must be wondering, though.
“I guess I look a little different than the last time you saw me, huh?” he said with a smile.
I admitted that life seemed to be better for him now than when I last knew him. He told me a little bit about what he’s been doing and about his new family — a wife and two young children. He talked briefly about the business he owns. And he said something simple which I haven’t been able to quit thinking about.
“This might sound like a cliche, but I had to change to be worthy of Rachel’s love,” he said. “She fell in love with me and I knew I wouldn’t keep a woman like her if I didn’t get my act together fast. I had to become a better person to be worthy of what she was willing to give me.”
He told me that he quit drinking and hadn’t touched any addictive pills since the woman who is now his wife came along. He said that when he had gone through several recovery programs — including a hardcore “tough love” program run by fundamentalist Christians — people kept telling him he needed to get himself straight in order to attract the love he craved.
“It worked the other way around for me,” he said. “I was still a pathetic man when Rachel met me, but she saw something in me and gave me a chance to prove myself. Her faith in me changed everything. I needed her and I knew I would lose her unless I changed. She loved me first and I instantly changed. I didn’t think that was even possible.”
We exchanged a few more pleasantries and then Walter was gone. I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since.
Years ago, when I saw the movie “As Good As It Gets,” I missed the emotional point of the film. It just went right past me. But I saw it again about 10 or 15 years ago and it suddenly made so much sense to me. I guess my life had changed enough to I was ready to hear what it had to say.
Jack Nicholson plays a successful writer, Melvin, who has some psychological issues. Although he writes romance novels, he’s a personal wreck. He’s obsessive-compulsive and nasty to the people around him. He’s socially awkward and selfish. He’s not someone anybody would want to be around.
Helen Hunt plays a single mom named Carol. She’s a server at the restaurant where Melvin goes every day. Through a series of events, their lives become entwined and he sees something in her that makes him want to change. He has been scared of trying to heal his psychiatric issues, but he realizes that fixing himself is the only way he might have a chance with Carol.
In a scene which is heart-rending and sweet, Melvin finally confesses to Carol that her presence in his life has motivated him to try to fix himself. In this famous scene — one which I absolutely didn’t understand when I first watched it — Melvin tells Carol, “You make me want to be a better man.”
In a perfect world, we would reform ourselves simply because we wanted to be our very best. Just for ourselves.
All of the smart people tell us that we shouldn’t change for someone else. They tell us that we should change just because we want to be the best we can be. That sounds nice, but I find that real life doesn’t work that way.
We tend to change — if we’re going to change at all — because we want to be worthy of the love we crave from some specific person. We can know what we need to do. We can know what we need to be. We can see our potential. We can read all the motivational books. But until the right incentive is there, real change is hard to come by for most of us.
Everybody needs someone to believe in him. Everybody needs someone whose love he wants. Everybody needs someone who he wants enough to become his best self for.
Love is like salve that can heal broken lives. If there’s little or no love in a relationship, there’s no change that results from it. But if there’s great love and great emotional desire, powerful healing becomes natural. The right kind of love can provide us enough incentive to be nudged just a little to one side or the other. And that can take us to entirely different places.
Walter changed when he wanted to be worthy of a powerful love which he found and craved. I understand that.
I know how much more I can do and be with my life. I wish I could simply live up to my potential because I was self-motivated. That would be ideal. But I don’t live in an ideal world.
I live in a world where I want to do good things for a woman. I have a need to bring my creations and my achievements to her and to say, “I made this for you.”
Powerful love can make change possible for people who want to change themselves anyway.