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Your Wellbeing: Nordic Noir, Kurt Wallander, and our ears

Revd Chris McDermott, Lead Chaplain for the University of Sussex.

I have rarely watched a detective series of the Nordic noir variety that I did not like. Sarah Lund, Saga Norén, Kurt Wallander – they are all cool in my book! Even the English version of the Wallander series with Kenneth Branagh, filmed on location in Sweden, keeps that Nordic noir vibe alive – unlike (in my opinion) the American version of the Danish series, ‘The Killing’. Each of the characters have a similar edge revolving around an almost comic lack of emotional literacy.

Last evening I happened to watch an episode from the Wallander series – with Kenneth Branagh – that begins with a laboured conversation between him and his colleague Kalle Swedberg. After a boring stint of clocking plate numbers while staking out a local port with a view to catching smugglers Kalle suggests to a diffident Kurt that they go for a drink. Kurt is bleary eyed and indifferent as Kalle tries to talk about some obviously difficult things going on in his life at the moment. Kurt gets the wrong end of the stick and just blurts out that he cannot allow him to take any more time off. After a pause, Kalle says simply, “I am not asking for that.” Kurt yawns and says he’s tired and excuses himself to go home.

The next day Kalle is found on his couch at home with a bullet hole in his head. (I suspect we are initially intended to imagine suicide but it turns out to be murder.) Kurt is weighed down with a sense of guilt about Kalle. While examining the crime scene, Kurt, in ponderous mood, sits in the place where Kalle’s body had been, falling asleep, head leaning against the wall where the splatter-pattern of blood creates the effect that it has come from Kurt’s head – and suggests that retrospectively and late in the day enters into his friend’s suffering.

Kurt's sense of guilt is augmented when Kalle’s sister tells him how he had long considered Kurt his best friend and a person with whom he could always talk when he felt down. This is compounded when in the course of interviewing other relatives and acquaintance about what has become a crime of murder that he had been oblivious to salient details about Kalle’s life – the devastating break up with his partner etc. - things that a ‘best friend’ would certainly know.

Who hasn’t been a Kurt at some point in our life: failing to listen and missing obvious clues to what is going on with people close to us. Of course Kurt Wallander is a special case, mired in inveterate patterns of self obsession and depression that shape the distinct atmosphere of the series – nor would we want it any other way.  Though we do discern shifts in Wallander’s character before the finale of the series. Nonetheless, his is a case in extremis.

Last month I wrote ‘The Eyes Have It’, for this column and noted that something as simple as eye contact with a person can be a meaningful gesture. This is also true of ‘ear contact’ i.e. making the effort to listen not only to the words being said but also to the subtle and emotional textures behind them. Consciously nourishing habits of listening can be transformative for our relationships – even if, at times, time consuming.

There is a great deal going on in all our lives and often we do not feel that we have the space to accommodate another person’s woes. The challenge is to discern and manage our boundaries for the sake of our own wellbeing – while also being appropriately available to offer a listening ear to ‘the other’ – friend, colleague, spouse, partner etc.

We may not have answers for them. We may not be able to do anything practical to assuage any problems. We may be utterly stumped by what they are going through. Yet by being willing to just lend an ear and listen we are potentially offering a transformative presence.

Who among your circle can do with a listening at the moment? Even if you are feeling bleary eyed and eager to get away, the effort can make a major difference for everyone.

Ear! Ear!

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By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Friday, 8 February 2019