Roger Ebert on Losing and Finding His Voice

Best known, perhaps, as the cohost of PBS’s long-running Sneak Previews (later changed to Siskel and Ebert and the Movies), Roger Ebert was many things. The first Pulitzer Prize winning film critic, he was also a profound commentator on culture and politics, an incredibly astute observer of human nature and, ultimately, a candid memoirist and cataloguer of the human spirit. His very well written autobiography, Life Itself, began with this wonderful metaphor drawn from his lifelong love affair with film:

I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.

What I appreciated about him – beyond his extraordinary film views – was what I would call the flexibility of his thought. He refused to be pigeon-holed into one side of a narrowly constructed debate but was always probing further, inviting another way to frame the question at hand. This was true of film, politics, and religion. Touching on the topic of religion in the same book, he writes, “No, I am not a Buddhist. I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am more content with questions than answers.”

As professor S. Brent Plate notes in a recent commentary, in this sentiment, Ebert

inadvertently expressed just how much of a religious person he was. As the astute Catholic monk Thomas Merton once declared, “A man is known better by his questions than his answers,” and indeed religious traditions themselves unfold in the oscillation between questions and answers, answers and questions. There is no great person of faith, be it Abraham or Moses, St Augustine or St John of the Cross, Jesus or Muhammad, who did not express doubt, did not ask a lot of questions.

I’d agree, as I think questions and doubt are not the opposite of faith but intertwined with it.

In recent years, Ebert wrote openly and movingly about his struggle with cancer. After a series of various procedures and surgeries, Ebert had part of his jaw removed which took away his ability to speak and to eat. In a 2011 TED Talk, he shared what it has been like to lose, and then – via the power of digital communication – regain his voice. Watching it again after his death last week, I found it hard not to admire his tenacious and joyous commitment to life. I hope enjoy it as much as I did.

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