“No, Walter. You’re not wrong. You’re just an asshole,” The Dude (Jeff Bridges) admits to his bowling buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Cohen Brothers 1998 Noir film meets the end of The California Dream, The Big Lebowski.
I would accept that description of myself. If I also were not wrong and an asshole so often. I get it often enough, but my reactions need help. I am not to the point of pulling a piece in a bowling alley, yet. But my anger response to a perceived wrong, lack of set rules, or disruption is not too far from Walter’s.
Walter is a damaged Vietnam Vet with PTSD. He is divorced, yet still cares for his ex-wife’s dog, and strictly observes Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. He is a man trying to cling to structures with meaning. They ground and reassure him. And when his routines, rituals, and structure gets disrupted, he lashes out as only John Goodman can. Big and loud.
In an early scene we see him casually talking with The Dude, the old hippie, and Donny, their ex-surfer friend, when he screams “OVER THE LINE!” to an offending bowler.
Walter clings to structures for comfort. His reaction is to overwhelm others by enforcing the rules, at gun point if need be. He even needs to control when his friend Donny speaks and corrects The Dude’s use of an Asian slur. By the end of the film though, we realize that under all that camo and tactical gear is a scared 18 year old kid who lived through “a world of hurt.” In fact, it turns out he is not even Jewish. He converted for his ex-wife.
But it is Walter who quickly realizes the solution to the mystery of the rug that really tied the room together. He even mentions how “Un-Dude” his friend is being for getting hung up on the “ins and outs.” And he goes whole hog in his attempts to help The Dude on his quest. These are all traits of PTSD. The clinging, whether to habits or routines, rules or people. The shit-losing when anything pops its head into his life with an unwelcome thought. And yet he stares down arch-rival bowler, The Jesus, while Dude stammers. And he will mess up a couple of Nihilists who killed your car with a quickness.
His tears at the end signal the restoration of order and peace for him. The Dude needs Walter. But Walter also needs The Dude. Because The Dude is the one man chill enough to give Walter the grace to forgive himself. When Walter apologizes, The Dude says, “Fuck it, man.”
What the movie doesn’t explicitly show, however, is the embarrassment of being Walter. We with PTSD are simply not cool like The Dude. We tend to be rigid, hold ourselves rigidly, follow routines, and construct a framework to hang the point of life on. And that protects us from the scary truth that our suffering was and is pointless. As all suffering is.
The end result is sometimes you just lose your cool and freak out in a diner over the accessibility of a severed toe. Then Pride holds him in that diner seat long after he has embarrassed himself and The Dude.
Embarrassment, shame, self-loathing, or disgust generally fill the calm after the fit has passed. And it is something I have had to face down fiercely as I do my last days to week in this hotel room. All of my life is uncertain right now. All structure is gone. I have formed habits already to keep me sane in this room. But after living in fear and uncertainty for seven months now, I have had my share of outbursts.
But I have come to realize that I do not have to sit in the diner where I embarrassed myself. Walter eventually breaks down in tears, admits how wrong he had been, and apologizes to The Dude, and to Donny posthumously. “Fuck it.” Says The Dude, as they head off into the sunset to the lanes.
Feeling the shame, getting unbent, and apologizing are the keys. And if you are lucky enough, you will have friends who tell you to “Fuck it” and go bowling. I mean, in the end, all that is wrong — and there is plenty to go around in this world — sometimes flips our asshole switch. And it feels awful. Nobody wants to lose their cool. Good thing all those cool Dudes need us as much as The Dude needs Walter. Because we will do anything to get back your goddamn rug that really tied the room together! Eh, fuck it. Let’s roll.
– JL ✌🏼💙💛🖖🏼🌻
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