The Art of Abiding
With more than a quarter of a million ordained priests around the world, the Dudeist religion is no joke. Or rather, it is a joke, just a very serious one. Dudeism, inspired by the cult Coen brothers movie The Big Lebowski, preaches a gospel of chill. In a nutshell, its sacred credo is “Life is short and complicated and nobody knows what to do about it. So don’t do anything about it.”
In case you’ve had the misfortune to have missed one of the best movies of all time, the Dude is a slacker drop-out, played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges, who gets caught up in an extortion scam thanks to the accident of sharing his name with the husband of the kidnapped woman, Jeffrey Lebowski. The whole sorry sage starts when a couple of thugs rough him up and pee on his rug. What makes him the most unlikely hero ever to grace the silver screen is that, as the cowboy narrator says, “the Dude abides”.
All the pain and suffering in the film is the result of other people failing to follow this simple philosophy. Simply abiding is just too difficult when the world provides so many things to get indignant about. It is very deliberate that the action is played out against the background of the First Gulf War. Early on we see President Bush saying “This will not stand. This will not stand! This aggression against, uh, Kuwait.” The Dude’s friend Walter echoes this when he tells the Dude he must do something about the rug-soiling intruders: “I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude.” The suggestion results in both cases are worse than letting it go.
There’s something very attractive about the idea of simply abiding. Many wisdom traditions teach that striving leads only to frustration and discontent. “Appreciate the moment” has become a truism, given spiritual credibility by its connection with mindfulness.
But is abiding really the key to the good life? If I think about the people who I know who are closest to the Dude, I’m not so sure. What most strikes me is not how content they are but how little they do. They don’t travel, hardly ever go out and have a limited social life. At home, they don’t pursue hobbies but mostly sit around listening to the radio or watching TV. They ask nothing from life except the next day and something decent to eat and drink.
But this precisely is abiding, right? It’s the wisdom of wanting what you have rather than having what you want, counting your blessings rather than your misfortunes. Who even cares if the grass is greener on the other side if the grass you’re smoking is sweet?
I struggle to believe that this is the best life these real-life dudes could have. There is so much more to life than this, so wanting more is both natural and healthy. If the attempt to savour all that this earth has to offer makes you more restless and less content, so be it. For me, it’s a price worth paying. Or to turn it around, missing out on the richness of life is too high a price to pay for Dude-like serenity. When you’re so undemanding that you ask for nothing, nothing is precisely what you get.
But is the message of The Big Lebowski really that The Dude represents the highest form of being? Surely not. After all, were the prolific Coen brothers to follow his creed they would never have shot a test reel, never mind the 30-odd films (gloriously odd films) they’ve made.
What makes The Dude a hero is not that he reaches the heights of human potential but simply that he avoids the lows that arguably the vast majority sink to. No character in The Big Lebowski was born for greatness. But too many grow into pettiness. They become vain, greedy, bitter or selfish. Their desire for more is not a noble passion to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”, merely a baser failure to accept their own limitations, to refuse to accept that some bad things are better left standing, that some lines should be abandoned once crossed.
Similarly, the real-life Dudes I know may not represent the highest ideal for living. But compared to most people around them, they’re doing pretty good. Others may travel more, have better homes, accumulate memories of more “experiences”. But they are also more prone to dissatisfaction and striving, and the things they gain by their efforts don’t, at the end of the day, add up to a hill of beans.
At the end of the film, the cowboy muses, “It’s good knowin’ he’s out there, the Dude, takin’ her easy for all us sinners.” With his loose white clothes, long hair and beard, there is something Christ-like about him. In mainstream Christianity, Jesus dies on the cross so that we didn’t have to, so we could live. Similarly, the Dude abides completely so that we don’t have to. He has an innocence we can’t have. We’re fallen sinners who can’t just take it easy all of the time.
The Dude does not represent the end we should be striving for, and his imperfections are surely too clear for anyone to seriously think he is. He isn’t even a model of Zen calm and serenity. He frequently gets annoyed, not least by the ruination of his rug.
Still, he does stand for something most of us lack. The ability to abide is something we would be wise to cultivate, but not so much that it becomes the only ability we have. Take it easy, take it easier, but take life too easy and the best of it passes you by.
Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? (Affiliate link)