Warmth over Wit

By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW

Last night I watched Wit, a beautiful film starring the superb Emma Thompson (who co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from the play by Margaret Edson). 

Wit explores the mental and emotional effects of medical trauma and end-of-life issues. 

In it, Ms. Thompson plays a professor of poetry undergoing radical chemotherapy for late stage cervical cancer.

The doctors, eager to use her as fodder for their oncology research, treat her as a medical experiment rather than a human being. 

In a way she too had been one of them:  a brilliant, highly educated woman who identified with and measured her success by the standards of academia: publication, tenure, and critical acclaim rather than by connection or humanity.   

It is the shortcomings of “wit,” or intellectual ability, that are played upon.

Over the course of the film her identity is reduced to patient, her success defined by the progression of chemotherapy and cancer.  

In isolation, she battles loneliness and fear by seeking solace in the holy sonnets of 17th century author John Donne  (surprizingly more effective than it sounds).

 The sole human comfort she finds in the hospital comes from the nurse, a woman less educated, supposedly inferior and subservient to the doctors and the medical establishment.  The nurse recognizes the humanity in her fellow human and protects her dignity. 

This movie is a reminder of what we need to cultivate both in life and the end of life: compassion, connection and comfort.  After all, death is our universal destination.  Until then, our lives are made sweeter by the grace, the love and the presence of others. 

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