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 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 by doing something different, or something more, the next time out to rectify, or perfect, 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 you read a chunk of dialogue in rehearsal, at times, you can walk away thinking that you nailed it.  If that happens, you may spend the time between rehearsal, and going before the camera trying to memorize the pitch, the rhythm, and the pauses you used when nailing it, until you’re reading it before the camera.

Once that camera clicks on, 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 says, “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—

In a later chapter, 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 moment occurs 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, and if it feels false to you, 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?

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, got me thinking about the mystiques and perceptions we have of others, and how it affects our perceptions of ourselves.  The premise of the line also got me thinking about a mind-assaulting game I played on some of my co-workers.

Prior to initiating this mind-assaulting game, I had a well-established tradition of asking trivia of my fellow co-workers when we were off the clock, and we had reached something of a lull in our conversation.  With this tradition established, I began feeding 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 this characterization of her, and everyone liked her for all the reasons that people like other people, but they also liked her because she was a ‘dumb girl’.  She had a way of making people feel better about themselves 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 do that.  You give them that by joking that you may be dumb.  You gotta stop doing that.”  I didn’t see this as compassionate, but some may have.  I saw it as passing on knowledge that I had learned the hard way. 

I set this series of jokes 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.

“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 her were somewhat obscure, but they were questions that everyone felt they should’ve known, once they heard the answer, and they all appeared to feel a little dumber in lieu of ‘the dumb girl’ beating them to the answer.  They were brain teasers, in other words, as opposed to those impossible trivia questions that no one knows.  The two of us didn’t do this every day, and neither of us played the part of joke tellers.  At times, I told her to pop off with the answer, as if it was easy, and at other times I told her to pause, to think, and to intone her answer with that guess arc at the end.  At times, she missed some questions, and we did this to prevent our listeners from recognizing the 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.  I’m quite sure this girl reverted back to her ‘dumb girl’ jokes over time, for it was where she felt most comfortable, but I wonder if the people that heard these jokes 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.

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 is that some of the times a person needs to say this to themselves.  If a 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.  It could be said that a person’s opinion of themselves is the most vital opinion, but Bernie Glassman says it’s still just an opinion, one person’s opinion.  If you can convince yourself that it’s not a fact that you’re a failure, but an opinion, it might help you 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 by a reader, and it could lead to more people just throwing the (damned) ball again without all of the complications involved from previous failures.

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