Have you ever met someone who thinks they know everything? Are you someone who knows thinks they know everything at times?
That was Will (Matt Damon), a prodigy custodian turned math guru in Good Will Hunting. By looking at a painting of his counselor, Sean (played by Robin Williams), Will eviscerates and rips apart Sean’s life. Sean becomes very emotional and makes Will get out of the office.
Will is a very smart prodigy. In a single night, he can read several books, and he is a better mathematician than even the best of Harvard professors. But it is in a scene the next day that Sean puts Will in his place, and relays a message to Will: he doesn’t know anything.
The above is one of the most popular scenes in Good Will Hunting — the park scene. Sean acknowledges that he stayed up half the night thinking about what Will said to him. However, he then fell into a deep peaceful sleep after realizing that Will was just a child.
Sean says that Will would probably know everything about art, everything about Michelangelo, from political aspirations, sexual orientations, and all the information known to man. But then Sean taunts Will with the following line, one of the most iconic in the movie:
“But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”
Sean later asks Will about women, and Will’s own experience, and how even though Will has been in relationships before, he doesn’t know “what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy.” Will can know everything about war and Shakespeare but never been to war. Will knows about love but has never been truly vulnerable.
Like Sean, Will will never have seen the person he’s in love with die and held her in his arms. Sean talks about how he loved his wife through cancer, constantly flouting hospital visiting hours, and that Will will never know about the real loss until he has never dared to love someone more than he loved himself.
Sean tells Will that he doesn’t see an intelligent, confident man when he sees Will — he sees a “cocky, scared shitless kid.” Although no one can understand the depths of Will, Will purported to understand the depths of Sean all because he saw a painting.
“You’re an orphan right? Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?”
Sean then challenges Will to talk about who he is instead of ascribing everything to a narrative of a book. Sean has bought into the life of Will and challenges him to talk about himself and his life — to experience what it means to be vulnerable instead of trying to protect himself from finding all the answers in life in a book.
Do you know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel?
I’ve been there before and I want to go again, because, for me at the time, it was almost a checklist travel item, somewhere I should have been because other people said great things about. I’m older now, but I feel like I’m still not at the age where I can truly enjoy and absorb the beauty of the Sistine Chapel.
Knowing what it smells like isn’t meant to be taken literally, but metaphorically. Knowledge can be learned, for sure. But wisdom can only be experienced, and experienced by being in a place, by being in love with someone, by going through the experience of being an orphan — not by reading Oliver Twist.
I will not claim to be a life coach by any stretch because I’m 23. But I do know that reading books is not going to save me or change my life — they help, but I wish I was smelling the Sistine Chapel instead of checking something off a bucket list. I wish I allowed myself to experience the full range of emotions instead of always trying to be frugal and save money.
So no, even though I’ve been there, I don’t know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel, and I doubt that a lot of people know either. But that reality is because we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to smell, to experience.
I know we’re in a pandemic, but go forth and experience a life that’s meant to be a reality to be experienced instead of seeing life as a problem to be solved, in the words of Kierkegaard.
To me, smelling the Sistine Chapel means giving myself the opportunity to travel once the pandemic is over, backpack the Appalachian Trail, give myself the chance to see every run as much more than a run to get through but a run to experience. As a writer, smelling the Sistine Chapel means seeing the process of writing as not a means to an end, but a journey towards growth, self-discovery, and fun — which I’ve started to see a lot more to great effect.
So I’m going to ask you again: do you know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel? And if you don’t, how will you find out?