**A Special Note for 8 September: Queen Elizabeth II died today at her home in Balmoral, Scotland, after a reign of 70 years. Writing as a Canadian: she was our Queen. I saw her once about 20 years ago from only a few metres away, as she passed by during a royal visit to Vancouver. The crowd parted just as she came by, and there her countenance, with the most dazzling and awakened violet eyes caused me to blurt out “THERE SHE IS!” despite my indifference to the monarchy up to that moment. I admired her so very much after seeing how she presented herself that day. We are all sad here today.
Here was a person, inspirational in her unwavering clarity of who she was, which guided her through unimaginably complicated events throughout her reign. She remains a role model for us all.
A few weeks ago I watched a film I hadn’t seen for many years, ‘The Big Lebowski’, and with fresh eyes saw themes that helped shape how I want to approach Autumn and the upcoming Jewish New Year. The film first came out in 1998; and it was exciting to watch, with its collage of scenes and characters chock full of humour and pathos. The Jewish bits, played out so well by John Goodman, made the film an instant hit and source of many jokes amongst my Jewish friends, including bestowing the moniker, ‘The Dude’ onto one of them.
In fact, after viewing and then reviewing for professional chaplains journals, two of the other Coen brothers films, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’, I began to see how they create films that are chock full of Biblical themes, played out by contemporary characters and situations, creating tensions between Good and Evil. Even so, I wasn’t sure this would be the case after watching the opening scene of ‘The Big Lebowski: The Dude, clad in bathrobe and sandals, is scanning the dairy case and then gulping from a carton of half-and-half; upon his arrival home, after paying 69 cents with a check for the opened milker, two thugs repeatedly flush his head into his filthy toilet. But, I was tickled by the characters, and viewed the whole film.
This time around, I was delighted: themes popped out as the opening credits rolled, along with the tune of ”Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds’ and a blissfully winsome tumbleweed obeying whimsies of breeze taking us with it over the foothills of Los Angeles, into the basin, and finally the surf of the Pacific Ocean. Then, we see Jeff Bridges, The Dude, standing in the dairy aisle as before, but now I saw what the director and camera wanted us to see: A tall, contemplative man, in sandals and a robe, bearded, with flowing, shoulder-length honey-coloured hair. A bright halo cast by the overhead lights surround him, and he has the resigned look of someone who carries a great burden on his shoulders.
The film plays out as a series of challenges to the integrity of The Dude; he is consistent and adamant that he is The Dude and nothing will change that, not for anyone, not for any reason. As a result of his resistance to mould himself to others’ needs, he, and often his car, are the recipients of threats, rage, violent acts, and meanness, often meant for others.
The Dude sustains himself on White Russian cocktails (hence the need for the visit to the dairy aisle to buy half-and-half) and ‘doobies’ a.k.a. marijuana joints: what drives him forward and gives purpose to his life is a passionate obsession for bowling. But, as a target and receptacle of the violence, fears and pain of others, he serves a larger purpose: the one constant in their lives that people can reliably turn to, no matter what is thrown at him.
Thus, the tumbling tumbleweed rolls on. A familiarly mustachioed cowpoke in a ten-gallon hat wraps up the story, leaving us with the comfort of knowing that ‘The Dude Lives’, if we ever need him.
Here’s how this gay film, a fantasy romp through vignettes of our rumpled, unemployed, alcoholic doper, fits into this sacred season of reflection and renewal.
The plot is set as the rumpled Dude leaves the dairy aisle for his bungalow, and two men jump him and begin flushing his head into his filthy toilet and then urinate on his prized oriental rug in order to get him to reveal where he his hidden some large sum of money that his ‘wife’ stole. His bowling buddies figure out that there is a very rich man, also named Jeff Lebowski in town, whom The Dude was mistaken for. The Dude visits this ‘Big’ Jeff Lebowski in order to get compensation for his ruined oriental rug. The Dude identifies himself as ‘The Dude’ and not by his birth name and steadfastly insists this who he is, and not anyone else, echoing the Ineffable/God’s self-defining name, “I Am That I Am” of the Bible. Capable of seeing others only through corporate-coloured lenses, the Big Lebowski then asks what kind of work The Dude does. The answer, that he is not employed, sends the Big Lebowski exploding into a rant, pummelling him with the epithet of ‘bum’ and yelling, “Bums will always lose. Go get a job!”
So, I began to see where we go wrong for ourselves. More often than not, we allow others to control and define who we are: our employers, our families, social media, our faith communities. And, there is good reason for letting them: these people whom we allow to exert control, due to their wealth, or social status, or titles conferred upon them, can be so frightened of our autonomy that they become violent and threatening and suggest doomsday scenarios of hell, poverty, and loneliness, if we don’t comply.
Our new role model, the Dude, likes himself, and isn’t put off by the so-called consequences of doing so. He likes the life he has created: bowling, White Russians, smoking dope, bungalow in L.A., a car that runs, and his bowling friends. No pets or spouse or dependants; just himself. Yet, others keep trying to destroy that, by urinating on his favourite rug, calling him a bum and a loser, abusing his car, taking him for a patsy in their schemes. His dream of winning in the bowling league championships are deflated when his PTSD-driven, violent, gun-waving friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) says he won’t play if it’s on a Saturday because he is ‘Shomer Shabbos‘. Friends alternate between sabotaging his plans, and crying on his shoulder over their self-inflicted problems.
So, the message, much like that of TV’s Mr. Rogers, is that we can like ourselves ‘just the way we are’; but, as the Coen brothers show us, it’s just not that simple. Like the tumblin’ tumbleweed at the start of the film, even if we roll blissfully along with the breeze, untethered and unburdened, the wind is unpredictable. It takes us to and fro, over the busy highway and hopefully safely across, along the highways and suburban roads of life, and then end our rolling in the peaceful waters at the end of the land. As The Dude moves along steadfast in his centred self-hood, everyone around him is in chaos with their attachments to money, lifestyle, greed, PTSD, and fear. The Dude knows who he is. He is so appealing to others because of that.
People are always seeking someone who will be their rock of integrity, someone they can rely upon when they are afraid or hurting, such as a friend, counsellor, or religious figure. Others suss out self-knowing dudes, those bums whom they cannot control, in order to snuff them out. Either way, the destructive obsessions of others always seem to be redirected toward and absorbed by The Dude. Somehow, he finds ways to roll with it all and continues to be who he steadfastly is.
In watching this, it occurred to me that this is what we can choose to work towards in the New Year, the release from those attachments that tie us down and cause us to succumb to the inevitable and inescapable good and bad things in life. You may see The Dude as a bum and a loser who copes with booze and dope, like the Big Lebowski did. Yet, we do find out in the end that the legless, self-made philanthropist Big Lebowski is actually a common thieving embezzler and crook. You may be affronted by The Dude’s booze and drugs as escapism. Okay. Choose other ways of sustaining yourself beside these, such as learning how to set boundaries to keep unwanted intrusions by people and events out so that you can maintain who you feel most comfortable and complete being.
The hard part, though, is knowing and believing in who you are. That comes first. How do we do that? Is there a guidebook, a map. You’ve been told to do this before: ya-da ya-da ya-da, you say, yet another New Age simple-minded, empty meme, to Be Yourself.
You do already know what to do, though. Not only hear, but heed, the little voice inside that says, “this is really you, do it” when opportunities unfold. The more often you heed rather than out-think the call, the easier it becomes. Find others who share and value being and becoming themself, too; and bring them into your social or self-growth circle; look for things that are attractive to you, such as oboe playing is for me.
At this time of reviewing the past year or years, and reflecting on what you liked or didn’t like, what you succeeded at and how you fell short, perhaps there is some virtue in considering once again, the benefits and risks of being your self. Yes, there is work and a price that comes with being yourself. But, can you really ever be someone else?
Wishing You and Yours the Best of the Autumn Season and New Year…Susan