I am not sure at what age it begins, perhaps in one’s 30s or 40s, but there is a definitive moment when a person realizes that there are far fewer choices ahead than there were in the past. Every choice we make severs us from the relatively numberless other choices we might have made. And as life passes, it becomes clearer that the choices I might make about what to do in the future are severely limited. It is not true that you can be whatever you want, and it becomes progressively less true as one ages.
But this is not a crisis only for one’s middle age. I distinctly remember an existential and almost overpowering psychological anxiety when I had just finished the final day of some early grade. Suddenly the irreversibility of time struck me with a force I had not experienced before, and I realized I would never again be in that grade again. The ending of that school year marked the ending of a period of my life to which I would and could never return.
I was reminded of that as I was reading John Updike’s memoirs,Self-Consciousness, where he muses on the things that make up a person, that make up his “self.” He thinks especially about how his embarrassment at his psoriasis and his stuttering formed him in his youth, formed his interactions with other people; a self exists only in relationship to others. He remembers his high-school self as “skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormentor…obnoxious,” and his middle-aged self as obnoxious as well: “a distracted, mediocre father and worse husband…rapacious and sneaky and, in the service of his own ego, remorseless.”
“But, then, am I his superior in anything but caution and years, and how can I disown him without disowning also his useful works, on which I still receive royalties? And when I entertain in my mind these shaggy, red-faced, overexcited, abrasive fellows, I find myself tenderly taken with their diligence, their hopefulness, their ability in spite of all to map a broad strategy and stick with it. So perhaps one cannot, after all, not love them” (221-222).
Then I watched Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957; streaming for free on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel, and Kanopy), about a doctor and professor, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), who, in the light of his approaching death, is made to reckon with all the choices that led to his isolation from his family.
The film makes clear in a series of encounters that Dr. Borg’s interactions with his family, including his wife and son, have been far different from this interactions with other people, especially with the gas station attendant (Max von Sydow) and his wife. In fact, nearly every scene is a mirror of some kind, reflecting Isak back to himself as seen by others. This is made explicit in the dream sequence with Sara (Bibi Andersson, who also plays Sara the hitchhiker), where Isak refuses to look in the mirror she is holding up. In the encounters with the hitchhikers and the gas station couple, he sees himself in a positive light. But his son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) and daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) both resent him, though Evald is his father’s son, even to extremes. We also see Isak and his wife, as well as Evald and Marianne, reflected in the arguing couple who cause the car accident.
But it is especially in his “vivid and humiliating dreams” where he sees and hears things he could not hear or see when he was awake. He has staked everything, it seems, on his career, and he fails completely the “examination” given by Sten Alman (Gunnar Sjöberg, the husband in the fighting couple) in his old house, even pronouncing dead Berit (Gunnel Broström, the wife in the fighting couple), who then laughs in his face. As Sara says, he knows everything but he knows nothing. At the end of this dream, he sees, as if on a stage, just how cold and insensitive he was toward his wife. He asks Sten/The Examiner what he will receive for these failures:
Sten says, “The usual.”
“Is there no mercy?” Isak asks him.
“Don’t ask me. I don’t know.”
It appears as if Isak’s fate and his punishment are certain, that he has accumulated these debts over the course of a selfish life, and now will have to pay them.
Updike wrote, concerning his own consideration of approaching death: “But there seems, my having gone this unfortunately far, still this to say: one believes not merely to dismiss from one’s life a degrading and immobilizing fear of death but to possess that Archimedean point outside the world from which to move the world. The world cannot provide its own measure and standards; these must come, strangely, from outside, or a sorry hedonism and brute opportunism result—a greedy panicked heart and substance abuse. The world punishes us for taking it too seriously as well as for not taking it seriously enough” (Self-Consciousness, 232).
But for Bergman, there is no such Archimedean point “outside the world.” His world is completely enclosed, and if salvation is going to come to someone, it is going to be from within the world. If God exists, He is silent, and so Bergman himself moves in his films from interrogating the silence of God to assuming it. The argument between Anders and Viktor about the existence of God is irrelevant to the world in which Isak lives. If such a question lives, it lives only as a long-distant childhood memory.
But via both Saras, and especially Marianne over the period of their automobile journey, Isak comes to a far different conclusion than someone like Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal. It is essentially a happy ending for him as he falls asleep, with reconciliation all around: between Isak and Evald, between Evald and Marianne, and between Marianne and Isak. “Salvation” comes to Isak, and reconciliation in the family, by virtue of the purely human assertion of life by Marianne concerning her unborn child, and in Sara’s virginal joy.
In obvious ways, I come to conclusions different from Bergman’s, and more aligned with Updike’s. But the question is the same: how will we come reckon with our years, and all we’ve done and left undone? The world, or the Law built into it, will punish us for taking it too seriously as well as for not taking it seriously enough. From what point can our worlds be moved, and by what lever? For the Christian, that point is the cross and the lever is the love of God in the flesh of Jesus, who did and does “all things beautifully.”
Though Bergman did not see it, it was the purity of God’s silence at the cross that ruptured this closed world, because God had Himself entered it. Then there is for us the comfort of knowing that, in the resurrected Christ, none of our labor is in vain. And there is the secondary comfort, as well, of that reconciliation extending to those for whom our love has failed; to “those whom I have hurt, and those whom I have failed to help.” The reconciliation of the world with God is also the reconciliation of those who live within that world. Here we can avoid both the “sorry hedonism” and the “brute opportunism” of the truly closed system; then, both nightly and in our last night, we can “go to sleep at once and in good cheer.”