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The On Being Project

Roger Ebert’s Buddha Smile

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Like many, for most of my life Roger Ebert has been a vaguely familiar and pleasant face — paired with Gene Siskel and opining with his thumbs. And, like many, I was captivated by Chris Jones’ profile of Ebert in a recent issue of Esquire. As a necessary preface to his story, Jones describes how in 2006, after a series of surgeries battling thyroid cancer, Ebert’s jaw was removed — also removing his ability to eat solid foods and talk.
What may sound like a tragedy reads in many ways as a rebirth. The challenges of his new life are very clear, but Ebert seems to have rediscovered himself in a way that he’s made public on his blog and even through his Twitter account. One of the more striking aspects of the Esquire article is a full-page portrait of Ebert that made no attempt to conceal his face, post-jaw removal. Jones describes one aspect of Ebert’s new face in detail:

“… because he’s missing sections of his jaw, and because he’s lost some of the engineering behind his face, Ebert can’t really do anything but smile. It really does take more muscles to frown, and he doesn’t have those muscles anymore. […] Anger isn’t as easy for him as it used to be. Now his anger rarely lasts long enough for him to write it down.”

I was reminded, in a way, of an essay by our recent guest, E. Ethelbert Miller, called “Langston’s Buddha Smile”:

“For me, looking at Langston, with his Buddha smile and easy laugh, makes me think about what it means to possess a poet’s heart. I too have known rivers.”

Obviously, there’s a world of difference between these two smiles in terms of circumstances, but something resonates here with me. Jones’ description of Ebert’s new life seems to hint at spiritual transformation, although perhaps as a self-declared atheist Ebert wouldn’t feel comfortable with that language. Maybe it’s a “poet’s heart” then, but it’s evident in his honest and gracious response to Jones’ profile:

“I mentioned that it was sort of a relief to have that full-page photo of my face. Yes, I winced. What I hated most was that my hair was so neatly combed. Running it that big was good journalism. It made you want to read the article.”

And perhaps moreso in his words on “dying in increments”:

“I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”

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