If you’ve seen the film Love Actually, you probably have one storyline that you love best. Perhaps it’s the one with the beautiful, cross-cultural love story between an Englishman (Colin Firth, portraying Jamie) and his Portuguese housekeeper (Lucia Moniz, portraying Aurelia.) Perhaps it’s the one with a young boy (Thomas Sangster, portraying Sam) and his heartbroken dad (Liam Neeson, portraying Daniel) who go to great lengths to “…get the shit kicked out of us by love!”
Great choices, all. But the story I’m drawn to is that of Laura Linney’s character, Sarah, and her relationship with her mentally-ill Michael (played by Michael Fitzgerald.)
In case you’ve not seen Love Actually, Sarah and Michael’s story goes like this:
Sarah works at a design company. She’s secretly in love with a co-worker, Karl (played by Rodrigo Santoro.) Her phone rings constantly, and she answers every time. These calls are from her brother, Michael, who lives in an institution. Michael is mentally ill, and Sarah is his only connection to the outside world (and perhaps to reality.) We see her visit with Michael, and he is sullen and aggressive. He tries to strike Sarah, and a guard steps between them. She shows no signs of fear, only sadness. “Don’t do that, my darling,” Sarah tells Michael. “Don’t do that.”
When Sarah and Karl do get together, their tryst is interrupted by Michael’s calls. Sarah explains to Karl that her brother needs her, as she’s the only support he has. Michael asks Sarah to come visit him, and she cannot say no. In a final scene, Karl and Sarah greet each other from a distance. Their relationship is on hold, perhaps forever.
I’ve been thinking about what Sarah embodies, and how, in a sense, I’ve been writing to her. I’ve been writing to this woman who believes that she must sacrifice her own success and happiness so that her brother won’t feel alone.
I’ve been writing to this woman because I know her well. And I wish that her story had ended differently.
I’ve been writing to her because my story has ended differently…thanks to some subversive questions.
Sarah is a remarkable woman. As her parents have passed away, she’s her brother’s only support system. She visits regularly and loves him deeply. She’s a wonderful sister. The problem is, there are some significant ‘gaps’ in her life. She can’t approach the man she loves for fear of being rejected. She can’t leave work early or even on time, because she wants to be seen as hyper-diligent and super-responsible. She’s dependable, reliable…and absolutely terrified to be herself.
Taking a subversive stance: How might you start to care for yourself as well as you care for others? How might you close some of the ‘gaps’ in your own life?
One of the hardest gaps to close is the ‘I find my identity in the person I’m caring for, and I won’t let anyone else in’ gap. I’ve seen it in the parents of some of the people at L’Arche, and I’ve seen it in myself. It’s scary to trust someone else to care for the person you love. It’s tempting to think that only you can give them the support they need.
The problem with this mindset is stated well in About A Boy: “…Two people isn’t enough. You need backup. If you’re only two people, and someone drops off the edge, then you’re on your own. Two isn’t a large enough number. You need three at least.”
In Love Actually, Karl is the third person that might have been ‘backup’. He’s the kind of understanding person Sarah could let in to her life and her relationship with Michael. When Michael’s calls interrupt Karl and Sarah’s tryst, Karl says, “[That’s] okay. Life is full of interruptions and complications.”
So why don’t things work out between Karl and Sarah? Why won’t she let him be her ‘backup’? The answer lies in what Karl says next. He suggests that Sarah not answer her phone every time it rings. He asks Sarah, “Will [you taking his calls] make him better?” When she says no, Karl says, “Then maybe…don’t answer.”
By asking these questions, Karl is showing Sarah her own powerlessness. Yet he’s also showing her another way: a life of boundaries, a life in which she doesn’t drop everything the minute her brother calls. She could choose to set a boundary, to take her brother’s calls twice a day, perhaps. Yet she isn’t ready to deserve her own life. She isn’t ready to love herself as much as she loves her brother.
And that is what breaks my heart: in being Michael’s sole support, Sarah has locked herself in a room alone. She’s ‘institutionalized’ her heart and her needs.
Taking a subversive stance: How might you clarify your boundaries to make your care-giving more life-giving?
I understand Sarah’s self-imposed isolation. As a teenager, I believed that I couldn’t invite my friends over or bring a date home to meet my family. I was afraid that, once people saw my brother out-of-control, they’d be out the door.
What changed my attitude?
First, very simply put, my best friends wouldn’t let me get away with it. They encouraged me to host a sleepover. When I conceded, my fears came true: they saw a major outburst from my brother. I felt ashamed, so I told them they could leave if they wanted to. Instead, they sat with me, held me and told me they weren’t going anywhere.
Next, while my brother did (and still does) struggle with behavioral problems, those outbursts do not define him. They aren’t all he is. He also has gifts to offer. He also has love in his heart. Isolating him from the rest of the people in my life wasn’t helpful for him or for me.
Finally, I came to see that hiding wasn’t the brave thing to do. Hiding my brother and my family life was exhausting. It made me sick, inside and out. Likewise, when I tried to hide behind ‘acts of service’ during my first year in L’Arche, I got sick often. I also came down with shingles…at the ripe old age of twenty-three (and then again at twenty-four.) I was using care-giving like a drug, to avoid feelings of loss and inadequacy. And that wasn’t good, for me or for the people I cared for. Once I realized this, I made changes. I took time off. I wrote my book. Slowly, I started coming back to myself.
Taking a subversive stance: How might you find a balance between caring for others and caring for yourself?
The final scene in the Love Actually storyline shows Sarah at the institution. This time, Michael seems happy, almost content. Sarah drapes a scarf around his neck, and they smile at each other. I can’t help but see that scene as a gift. Seeing that, I feel the love they have for one another expand, perhaps enough to let others in.
The love Sarah has for Michael is clear, fierce and palpable (and in this scene, Michael’s love for her is apparent.) I only wish that Sarah could find that same love for herself, that same fierceness in reclaiming her own life.
When Michael experiences delusions and wants to hurt himself, Sarah tells him, “Oh please, please don’t, little darling. Between the two of us we’ll find the answer and it won’t hurt anymore.”
How much I want to say the same to her: Please don’t give up your heart and your happiness. Between us, we’ll find an answer, a way for you to love your brother and have your own life.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be releasing a ‘manifesto’ of sorts for A Wish Come Clear. It’s titled, “Your Creed Of Care: How To Dig For Treasure In People (Without Getting Buried Alive)”. I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.