The Big Lebowski and Philosophy


Throw the [Damned] Ball

Throw the [damned] Ball is the title of the first chapter of Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman’s collection of philosophical anecdotes: The Dude and The Zen Master. This particular chapter details the deliberations that The Honeymooners character, Ed Norton, would go through when preparing to do things that the character Ralph Kramden would instruct him to do. When Kramden would instruct Norton to sign a document, for example, Norton would flail his arms out a number of times, and go through a number of other, hilarious deliberations in a presumed search for that perfect, inner place he had designed for signing a document that Kramden informed him was important. The joke was that it was just the signing of a document, but that the Norton character believed that it warranted a degree of importance he had a difficult time finding. These deliberations would carry on for an extended amount of time that the Ralph Kramden character found so exhausting that he would end up exploding with a “Just sign the thing!” comment.

Bridges brought this scenario to a bowling coach that was hired to inform the cast of The Big Lebowski on the mechanics of bowling in a manner that would appease most bowling aficionados that happened to see the film. The deliberations that the bowling coach went through –pausing to include the necessary notes on the intricacies involved– carried out in a manner that Bridges found reminiscent of Norton’s deliberations, until Bridges said:

Anyone ever tell you to just throw the [damn] ball?!”

The bowling coach’s friends found that response hilarious. The bowling coach, being a bowling guy and a philosophy freak, had, at one point in his life, tried to find the perfect harmony between mind and body before throwing the ball down the lane. This search, he confessed, could take as long as five minutes, until his friends shouted: “Just throw the [damn] ball!”

The import of the tale is that some of the times, we can get so locked up in our search for perfection that we end up forgetting to just do whatever it is we’re trying to do. And, it could be added, the repetition of doing whatever it is we’re trying to do that can prove to be far more instrumental to learning than thinking about it can.

We all fall prey to trying to perfect what we do by doing something different or something more this time out to rectify, or improve upon, what we did in other attempts to make it better, or more. We’ve all written resumes, reports for bosses, and simple emails to friends, and we’ve all tried to do more in the present than we did in the past to make it more … More funny, more interesting, and more educational.

There is this desire, in all of us, to add the perfect cherry atop the pie, or if that particular cherry isn’t perfect enough, we may try adding another cherry, and another cherry, until the pie is so perfect that it’s now overloaded with cherries, and all of the individual cherries have lost that unique, special, and tantalizing quality that one cherry can have when it sits upon a pie.

“There is always more information out there,” Bernie Glassman said. 

Writers often have to fight this urge to add more, when they’re editing an essay, a short story, or a novel. All original drafts are incomplete in some way, but the question every writer struggles with is the idea of whether that incompleteness is as a result of quantity or quality? Most writers want their pieces to be more: more persuasive, more provocative, and more relatable, but as we all know more is not always more.

More characterization can feel necessary when a fiction writer is attempting to make their character more relatable, and it may be in some cases, but in other cases it can be redundant, counterproductive, and superfluous information that ruins the flow of the material.  More is not always more.  Some of the times, it’s too much.

This brings us to the fundamental question of when do we reach a point where completion can be considered established? I’ve often found a unique harmony in three. One piece of information, or one example of a pro or con, doesn’t feel like enough to establish a relationship with the reader; two feels incomplete in ways that are difficult to explain, but you know it when you see it; and four feels like it’s too much more. Three, in most cases, has a harmony that rounds a point out. I’m sure if I discussed this predilection with a therapist, they would inform me that most of the fairy tales my mom read me contained the magical power of three. I don’t know if that’s the answer, but I do think there is some form of subconscious power in three.

“We’re all looking for perfection,” Bridges says to conclude the Just throw the [damn] ball chapter, “but perfection is often a past and future tense that we’re not going to achieve in the present.”  

Bridges speaks about the difference between reading movie scripts in rehearsal and reading lines before the camera. He says that when he reads a chunk of dialogue in rehearsal, he might walk away thinking that he nailed it.  If that happens, he might spend the time between rehearsal, and going before the camera trying to memorize the pitch, the rhythm, and the pauses he used when he nailed it.

“Once that camera clicks on,” he says, “it’s almost impossible to nail-it in the exact same manner you did in rehearsal, because the conditions have all changed, and until you can learn to adapt to the current conditions before you, you’ll never be able to repeat the lines with any proficiency.  I nailed it in rehearsal, why can’t I find that same place?

“Because,” he continues, “That place may have never existed, or it may not have existed in the manner you thought it did. A person can go through all of the deliberations of trying to find that exact same, perfect place again, and they can go crazy with the thought that they never will. Some of the times it’s better to just throw the [damn] ball.”

 Be the man they want you to be

Bridges talks about a fan detailing for Bridges the idea that The Dude’s characteristics, are nothing more than a manifestation of another of The Big Lebowski’s character’s needs. The fan said that at one point in The Dude’s life (a theoretical point that preceded the time span of The Dude’s life that was documented in the movie), the Dude became the Dude in all the ways that this Donald character needed a Dude character in his life. The Dude then liked those characteristics so much that he may have incorporated them into his personae. The fan’s suggestion was that we’re all becoming different people at various points in our lives, based on interactions, events, and time. Some of the times, we don’t like those characteristics, and we discard them soon after we’ve fulfilled someone else’s short term needs, but at other times they fit us like a glove, and we incorporate them into our spectrum of characteristics.

When a momentous occurrence happens in one’s life, such as becoming a parent, few can move forward without that event affecting their character in some manner. If this momentous moment doesn’t affect a 180 degree change on us, it changes us in a gradual way that an infrequent visitor of our life may recognize, but those around us do not. We may have had parental characteristics in us before, but they were never tapped, until someone (the child) needed them.

We can try to revert back to that character that our beer drinking buddies knew, but in the aftermath of tapping into those parental characteristics, the beer drinking buddy characteristics feel false. You may want to become that fella that all of your drinking buddies knew, at least for one night, but you have changed in ways that make that character irretrievable. You may not know how much effort your putting into this, but your drinking buddies may pick up on it.

There are also characteristics that we display for the expressed purpose of impressing others. The popular parlance for this is an ‘A’ game. Our ‘A’ game may be something we reserve for our grandmother, prospective employers, or that incredible blonde that walks by our cubicle every day. Some may say that displaying an ‘A’ game, if we reserve it for these temporary moments, is the very definition of phony, but is that always the case? What if, in the course of this temporary display, we find some nuggets of our personality that appeal to us so much that we incorporate them into our spectrum of characteristics in the way the fan suggested the dude did to please Donald. 

We’re all changing, in other words, and we’re all affected by conditions, circumstances, and the people we run across, that we all  achieve some sort of compilation of reactions to the people around us that informs our personality.

You know what your problem is?  You don’t realize who I think I am—

This particular nugget, led me to delve into the mystique and perceptions we have of others, and how it affects our perceptions of ourselves. The premise of the line also brought me back to a mind-assaulting game I played on some of my co-workers.

Prior to initiating this game, I established a tradition of asking trivia questions of my fellow co-workers when we were off the clock, and we reached something of a lull in our conversation. With this tradition firmly established, I feed one of my friends the answers.

“Before we go out with this group tonight,” I said, “I am going to ask the group this trivia question…at some point in the night, and the answer to that question is this…” 

The subject of this game had a well-established tradition of being goofy and less intelligent than the rest of us. We were all comfortable with our characterization of her, and everyone liked her for all the reasons that people like other people, but they also liked her because she was the ‘dumb girl’. Dumb people have a way of making us feel better about ourselves through comparative analysis. She didn’t help matters much when she made it a habit of concluding her additions to our conversations with: “Of course, I’m dumb, so what do I know.” I found that trait annoying, and I told her so:

“You do realize that when you characterize yourself in such a manner, so often, that’s what people are going to think of you?” I said. “How many times have people called you dumb, even in a harmless, joking manner? It’s because you started it. You give them that by joking that you may be dumb. You have to stop doing that.” I didn’t see this as compassionate, but some may have. I saw it as passing on knowledge that I learned the hard way. 

I set this joke up to increase this girl’s perception, but I also grew tired of people laughing at this girl’s ‘dumb girl’ jokes for what I thought were all the wrong reasons. I also didn’t care for the elevated perceptions these people gained of themselves while laughing at her ‘dumb girl’ antics.  I felt a need to mess with the dynamics of those relationships, so I began feeding her answers.

“When do we tell them?” she asked at the outset of the first joke. “When do we let them in on the joke?”

“We don’t,” I said. “We never tell them. There is no punchline, unless you consider their elevated perception of you a joke.” 

The trivia questions I asked the group were somewhat obscure brain teasers, but they were questions that everyone felt they should’ve known. Once they heard the answer, they all appeared to feel a little dumber in lieu of ‘the dumb girl’ beating them to the answer. The two of us didn’t do this every day, and neither of us played the role of joke tellers. At times, I told her to pop off with the answer, as if that questions was that easy, and at other times I told her to pause, to think, and to intone her answer with a question mark arc at the end of her guess. At times, she missed some questions, and we did this to prevent our listeners from seeing any bread crumbs back to the joke, but she still would’ve achieved an ‘A’ grade if anyone had bothered to chart her answers. We did this often enough to change their perception of her, in my opinion, but not so often that it became obvious what we were doing.

At some point, we forgot to do it, and then we forgot about it over time, as other matters of consequence distracted us, but I now realize that that may have added the cherry atop the pie of the perception of this girl. Had we continued to do it, we may have overdone it, and if we had given the joke up, it would’ve destroyed everything we built. This girl reverted back to her ‘dumb girl’ jokes over time, for it was where she felt most comfortable, but I wonder our jokes that day formed a new impression of this girl that lasted? I also wonder if doing this changed people’s perception of her to such a degree that it cost her some friendships.

The reason I write that latter, somewhat confusing line is that I realized that in some ways I could not grasp this dumb girl relationship she had with various players in our group proved mutually beneficial. They enjoyed hearing her dumb girl stories for all the reasons stipulated above, but she enjoyed them too. Even if they were, in my estimation, laughing at her, they were laughing, and she enjoyed making people laugh. Even if they liked her for reasons I found self-serving, they liked her, and she enjoyed being popular. She played the role of the dumb girl in our sitcom and every sitcom needs a dumb person in their cast to make the audience feel smart. The only person that had a problem with this dynamic in the group, presumably, was me. 

That’s just your opinion

The goal of any writer should be to write a book that causes one to think in ways they would not have if they never picked their book up. If this was the goal of the authors of The Dude and The Zen Master, then I say mission accomplished. One glaring example is the That’s just your opinion section.  We hear this often in our culture, when another disagrees with our opinion. My reply has always been, “Of course that’s my opinion. Where do you think I got it?” Glassman’s twist on this trope is that some of the times a person needs to say this to themselves. If that person has failed to the point that they’re devastated by it, it could be said that the nature of that failure is just one person’s, theirs. Others may see our failures, and they might form an opinion of us based on that failure, but people move on. When the smoke of that opinion clears, there is only one opinion that survives, our opinion of ourselves. That opinion, Bernie Glassman says, is still just an opinion, one person’s opinion. If the subject of that opinion can convince themselves that it’s not a fact that they’re a failure, but an opinion, it might help them move on. While this may sound like a bunch of gobbeldy gook to some of us, if it could be used in a productive manner to lead more people to just throw the [damned] ball again without all of the complications of previous failures involved.

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