Reticence

It has been half a dozen years, I think, since this column last spoke about a film in the theaters. It is time to mention another.

“Living” is set in mid-20th-century London when office work was entirely on paper. The principal characters, who are in the accounting part of the London County Council building, measure success by the height of the stack of work on their desks. There seems no incentive to solve problems and high incentive to palm off files onto other departments.

The rather dictatorial head of this little group learns that his cancer is terminal and he has but a few months to live. He waits in the dark in his home to tell his son and his son’s wife, but when they arrive they say they have no time to sit and talk. Alienation is thick in the air. He decides the next day to go to a beach village and there, to a stranger who is a generation younger, he first tells his story. They go to various pubs and the like, as gradually the old man starts to come out of decades of severely circumscribed life.

The unfolding is all the more moving for its understatement. Whenever the dying man comes close to speaking about his cancer, he prefaces it by saying that it’s all really boring. In the event, he dies without his son or his colleagues knowing he was ill.

The screenplay is by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel-prize-winning author of Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go and the recent Klara and the Sun. Some of these have themselves been made into films that also were about what is not said as much as what is. 

It does seem to me that there is a perspective from which our personal medical conditions are boring. Bill Buckley is reported to have had a rule that no one was to speak more than 30 seconds about health or travel problems. Such problems are things we can bond over—they are human universals—but they are not things that augment what it means to be human. More recently I have found myself thinking: Life is too short to be spending it with doctors. We need doctors, of course, but it’s not for the joy of visiting their offices! Rather what is important is what happens outside their offices: the life that we are given to go on living.

These truths underlie the reticence that sees health problems as boring things to spend time talking about. On the other hand, I would underline that such talk is necessary in order for us to convey other important things (particularly expressions of love and kindness). In the film “Living” what is important is what the main character does in his final bit of life: he gets something done that is important. I will say no more about it. It is a beautiful film. See it.

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Out & About. This Sunday, January 22, I will be at Annunciation in Lewisville, Tex., celebrating the Eucharists and also leading the adult class, at 9:45 a.m., on friendship.

The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar will be Sunday, February 19, on A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. In this case it is more true than usual: Don’t see the film—read the book. The conversation will begin at 5 p.m.

On the Web. I was recently on the Scattered Seeds Podcast in a conversation on love, friendship, loss, grieving and healing. You can listen to it here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/2049774/11941827-episode-96-victor-lee-austin

Talking on the Plane

When the seatbelt light was turned off, I unbuckled and asked the fellow beside me if I could trouble him to get up. He was gracious, of course, but he asked if I would mind if he looked at my book while I was gone. No one has ever asked that before. 

I had noted that he had a Hebrew Bible and had been reading it. When I returned, he thanked me. The book was Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer; he told me of a college trip (some decades ago) when he almost got up the courage to visit Percy. He didn’t know the novel; I told him that Percy, a southern Catholic writer, had appreciative insights about the role of Jews in the South. For instance, Percy takes their survival through millennia as a sign from God. One of his characters (in another novel) marvels over this survival and cries (naming ancient enemies of the Jews), “Where are the Hittites?”

He then surprised me by citing recent archeological discoveries about the Assyrians. He then touched my heart by saying he had been taking care of his late father’s library. I learned his father had been a military chaplain. The care with which he was treating his father’s books seemed pious and fitting. He took many of them to the synagogue. “You know synagogues have vaults for burying books?” he asked me. “I was taking them so many, they finally said, No more!” He had found fitting homes for many of the significant volumes. He treasured for himself his father’s sermons.

I had told him I was a Christian theologian. He told me he was a neurologist. We talked about that field—I said that when my wife’s brain tumor was found, I had thought, and I still think, that were I to have another life I would love for it to be in neurology. We both lamented the natural tendency for doctors to focus on that one body part in which they are expert. He resists that as much as he can. I told him about Susan’s neurologist in New York City—it turned out that he had studied under him. We shared our admiration.

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I often fly with hardly a word to the people around me. This reticence, perhaps, keeps me from seeing divine gifts. I’m glad he asked to look at my book.

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Out & About. The Good Books & Good Talk seminar this Sunday, January 15, will discuss the aforementioned Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to participate in the conversation, which is from 5 to 6:30 pm at Incarnation in Dallas. We meet on the 2nd floor of the education building.

I teach a five-session course on Christian Ethics, which will meet monthly through May, in each month on the third Saturday. The first class is January 21, from 9 a.m. to noon. If you are interested, contact Erica Lasenyik: .


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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: