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Alan Bennett’s Irene

We watched the first instalment of Alan Bennet’s ‘Talking Heads’ (currently streaming on BBC i-player) last night, starring the incomparable Imelda Staunton. It made me think of all the people I have labelled ‘difficult’ over the years, mainly for want of the patience needed to get into their ‘heads’, to meet them on the road of wherever it is they’re coming from in life and so understand them better. And perhaps to meet myself along the way too, piecing together memories and associations, separated from each other by time, but which, taken together, reveal who I am, and yield self-acceptance.

Bennet, as always, holds up a mirror for us to behold ourselves as we are. But what is more important, on the basis of last night’s episode, is what he reveals to us about the people we, or society, or the Church, or the government, have given up on; people who are, for any number of reasons ‘difficult’, who don’t tick boxes and who appear not to care about that.

What we are seeing, of course, is a picture of the alienated individual, the person who, for whatever reasons or circumstances, has painted themselves into a corner in life. These are the people it is easiest to dislike, even to hate; the ill-tempered receptionist, the interfering and sometimes destructive neighbour, the carping and over critical parent or partner, the person who cannot recognize kindness, or acknowledge it when it is shown to them, the selfish, the controlling, the overbearing – all of us, in fact, because all of us have in some measure for at least some of the time, been directly affected by unhappy people and become like them ourselves. The memories associated with them continue to wound us and unhealed wounds lead to hardness of heart.

Bennet’s ‘Irene’ is not a bad person. She is a deeply wounded person. This in no way exonerates her for her treatment of the neighbours across the road, who she spies on and persecutes mercilessly. Neither does it oblige us to like her. This is a mistake that many well meaning people, especially Christians, make in regard to difficult people, that we must at least act as if we like them, that we are, in fact, under a moral obligation to ‘love’ them. To pretend to love someone who you find it impossible to like, for whatever reason, is pure hypocrisy, and yet the Church persists in communicating this impossible message to its members.

Bennet does not ask us to like Irene. What he does do, brilliantly, is to allow Irene an opportunity to reveal who she truly is, despite her new surroundings. (No spoiler here). We see what appears to be a transformation of her personality as a direct result of her being accepted by those around her. We sense, of course, the barbed nature of this ‘acceptance’. She is laughed at, but she is also given a sense of belonging and purpose. As a result of this, a new person emerges.

When a person is accepted unconditionally, either because a particular set of circumstances makes that more possible, or because love in its true guise gives them the benefit of the doubt, they get another chance at life. They can reveal their true selves to others, and perhaps to themselves, as Irene seems to do.

So what is Bennet inviting us to do in all this? I don’t think he is talking about the need for patient kindness, in the hope that our being nice to someone will somehow transform them over time. Irene gets that kind of niceness from the social workers and the occasional police officer who visit her. I think he is asking us to try to at least imagine where the annoying, mean, miserable individuals who may figure in our lives are really coming from. What is the unbearable grief that binds them to itself? What is the failure or disappointment, or heartbreak from which they will never recover? Where have they been crushed and humiliated? How can we begin to reach them in these places, without, of course, them realising that we are doing that, because that would only hurt or humiliate them further?

These are not questions waiting to be asked. They are pain that is waiting to be salved. We salve the pain of others through silence, not through superfluous, if well intentioned, words. Silence means giving undivided attention to another person, listening to them as we hold their underlying pain, even if only for a few brief moments, and then taking it home with us to hold in the ambient grace of a loving God.

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