When I first saw the trailers for Me Before You, a film adaptation of the heartbreaking New York Times Bestseller by Jojo Moyes which hit theaters this weekend, I was eager to have my heart wrenched. What could be more romantic than a dashing man in a wheel chair sweeping you off your feet?
The preview promised to deliver a heroic love story that shattered tired tropes. Instead it was a tragic example of love short-circuited by selfishness.
The story centers around the effervescent Lou Clark who has had a difficult life, moving from one minimum wage job to the next to help support her family. Lou is hired to care for Will Traynor, a wealthy man who has lived a charmed life—up until an accident two years earlier, which left him paralyzed from the neck down. Grieving tremendously for his former life, Will is determined to euthanize himself. But he is slowly won over by his new caretaker's joy and passion for life.
At least, that's what it looks like in the trailer—the makings of a rich love story which strikes upon a truth that is written on all of our hearts: that true love is heroic. True love challenges us to give of ourselves in ways that contradict our sense of natural preservation and self-seeking inclinations. If you listen carefully to epic love stories, and if you observe the lives of those whose love has stood the test of time, you see heroic self-sacrifice. Sometimes they are as dramatic as freezing to death in icy water so that the other can live (even if he could have fit on the board...) and sometimes it’s quieter than that. Sometimes it’s depression, disappointment, grief, poverty or physical disability that is joyfully borne, day after day, year after year, for no other reason than that of love for the other. What better foundation for real love than two people who both choose an imperfect life for the sake of the other?
Sadly, this is not the story that Me Before You delivered.
As you may have seen, the movie has caused much controversy leading up to its nation-wide release this past weekend. The consensus seemed to be that Hollywood was, yet again, glamorizing a very real—very tragic—scenario. Outcry from people living with disabilities clearly said, "no, this film is not an accurate depiction of our lives." Still, the movie was advertised with more tenacity than we've seen from love story film in quite sometime—perhaps not since The Notebook have I been so bombarded with sappy advertisements.
The film came in third place at box offices the weekend, surpassing expectation and bringing in $18.27 million. But as I sat in one of those crowded theaters to see the new release, I felt sick.
To explain myself I must spoil the plot, so read no further if you don’t want to know how the story ends.
It wasn’t long after Lou Clark took her position as Will Traynor’s caretaker, that she realized why she was really hired: to prevent Will from taking his own life and to, hopefully, convince him that life in a wheel chair was worth living. Friendship begins to grow between Lou and Will and the closer they become the more Lou throws herself into inspiring Will to live. Will and Lou fall in love to the music of Mozart, while dancing like fools at a wedding, and during Lou's birthday dinner at her family's humble home.
But then the love story comes to a screeching halt one evening on an exotic beach when Will tells her that nothing she can do can convince him to live. Nothing.
As I listened to the girls sitting next to me in the theater sniffle and let out strangled sobs, my stomach churned. I watched as Lou, in a final gesture of love, follows Will to Switzerland to say goodbye. She lay beside him on his deathbed as sunshine streamed through french doors and birds chirped.
In the next scene we see Lou in Paris, living life the way Will wanted her to live it. Will had given Lou a large sum of money so that she could live in comfort and see the world. “Push yourself. Don't Settle. Just live well. Just LIVE,” Will encouraged her.
Now, I could never disregard the suffering that a person in Will Traynor’s position might have to bear on a daily basis. I might never know the suffering of a life with serious physical disabilities, to be unable to walk and run, or make love (whether or not this is really a difficulty for those in Traynor's position is hotly debated). But, what I do know is that Traynor’s decision to euthanize himself, rather than live out a life of joyful suffering with Lou, was a lost opportunity to experience a miracle he had yet to discover—heroic love. Heroic love is a joy surpassing cliff jumping—and yes, even the perfection of a coffee and croissant on the streets of Paris.
The tragic mistake Will made was to refuse Lou's request to let her really love him. To be sure, Lou was asking Will to make no small sacrifice for her. She was asking him to let her feed him and clothe him. She would give up traveling the world, studying fashion, and maybe even children to be with him. But most significantly, she was asking him to live with joy, despite his suffering.
What Traynor misses—really, what many men and women today don’t understand—is that true love always requires sacrifice. Which is what makes Traynor's "no" the most heartbreaking, least romantic "no" I have ever heard. For love to survive, men and women must choose the difficult path with joy for the other's sake. Whether it’s caring for a spouse with physical disabilities or simply choosing to greet the other joyfully despite having a bad day, this is the kind of love that stands the test of time.
In their book Fighting For Your Marriage, Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg explain that people do find happiness in “giving of themselves” in selfless ways in marriage. “In fact, our research has shown that people who are happiest in marriage gain some sense of satisfaction from doing things that are largely or solely for their partner’s benefit,” they say. “Whereas selfishness fundamentally cuts across the grain of couple's identity, positive attitudes about sacrifice—and sacrificial behavior—gird up a strong relationship over time.”
While experts say that sacrifice does indeed fortify love, rather than tear it down, many of us still fear love that demands too much, and Will Traynor is no different. In the aforementioned scene on the beach, where Lou begs Will to live life with her, Will reveals his own fears. “I don’t want you to look at me one day and feel even the tiniest bit of regret or pity,” Will begins. “I would never think that!” Lou promises. But Will insists, “You don’t know that, Clark. You have no idea how this would play out.”
We can fool ourselves into thinking that Will’s fear was for Lou's happiness, but the truth is, his fear was mostly for himself.
“Before the accident, Will Traynor’s lived a self-centered lifestyle,” Jessica Tappel, licensed therapist and couples councilor, told me when I asked her about the film. Tappel explains, saying, “His value and self-worth lay in his ability to perform. Whether it was pursuing a prestigious education, closing high pressure business deals or doing intense sporting activities, his confidence in himself is what kept him going through it all.” When Traynor lost his capabilities to paralysis, he lost the center of his world and he refused to accept the possibility of a life of happiness that does not depend upon his abilities, even for the sake of Lou.
Truly, one of the most difficult and humbling aspects of love, is accepting that you are insufficient yet lovable.
As Tappel explains, “It takes courage to live each day with passion and purpose, especially when you struggle with physical disabilities. But Traynor could not accept his own challenge to live well, despite the suffering that exists, for the sake of the other.”
Nobody who has been in Will's shoes would claim that this kind of love is easy. But as many men and women who are unable to walk, who are too poor to see the world, too old to do the things they once loved attest—living life is a joy when you do it out of love for the other. As Victor Frankl, a psychologist who survived a Holocaust concentration camp, said,"It is ultimately the 'why' we suffer that can transform any 'how'."
Rather than hailing Me Before You as a modern love story, let us take it for what it is: a heartbreaking cautionary tale for all those of us who fear that love might demand too much. If we want a heroic love story, we must be prepared to live boldly despite inevitable hardship, and sacrifice for the other.