"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Serious Man

A Serious Man is the newest Coen brothers movie. The words of Henry Brooks Adams came to mind as I watched: "Morality is a private and costly luxury."

The story is great to watch if you ever feel like life isn't going your way. It can't be much worse than what this guy Larry is going through: marriage, kids, job, health - nothing's good. Nothing's solid. As soon as he gets his head around one reality, it all changes again. It's profoundly absurd.

The kids slay me. The son keeps interrupting the dad's tragedies with complaints about the TV reception. The intense self-centeredness of the teens, and in fact most of the characters, is comical yet very familiar, and it presents a nice contrast to the soundtrack of Grace Slick's words, "You better find somebody to love." There seems to be little real connection in the film. They're each adrift on their own islands.

Back to the morality. There are thieves and cheats and liars in the lot. Larry tries to live a moral life - he seems to be the only one remotely interested in doing the right thing, and it takes its toll on him. He gets ripped off by everyone because of his generous nature. Then as the tragedies build up in his life, he makes a pivotal decision to join the masses and become a liar himself, to cheat his way out of a tricky dilemma. Just at that moment, the phone rings with more bad news.

It's easy to be moral when everything is going well. It's much harder when we're struggling. We also note how immoral the very wealthy can become, but that's a different type of struggle - for fame, social ranking, and a love of money kind of strife that can't be easily remedied. Larry's just trying to stay afloat. And he dismisses his moral code in the process thereby also losing his integrity.

After Mother Theresa died, they found on her wall a version of the Paradoxical Commandments. In part...

The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway....
Give the world the best you have, and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you've got anyway....
In the final analysis it's between you and God; it's not between you and them anyway.

As an atheist, I read the last line as it's between you and your self-respect, or your integrity, rather than God. Being moral is about doing the right thing because it's right, not for glory or respect from others. Morality is a private act. And sometimes it costs us big time.

I want to end with, "...but it's just right." But why is it right? Why is it better to live a moral existence and get dumped on than also be a cheat and liar to stay in the game? It's often the harder choice, and I wonder to what extent I try to be moral because I like a challenge. And perhaps it's just what gives me, personally, a sense of purpose in life.

Charles Taylor says, "For those who define the good as self-mastery through reason, the aspiration is to be able to order their lives, and the unbearable threat is of being engulfed and degraded by the irresistible craving for lower things." But he also names other ways to define the good, through religious means or honour or affirmation of the ordinary life. And I can't help thinking those others are just wrong even though I have no solid backing for my assertions.


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