"A Serious Man", The Coen Brothers, and Me

It is 1967 in Minnesota, and college professor Larry Gupnik has a problem. In fact, he has a lot of problems, and it’s only getting worse. Larry is a good man, and all he wants to be is a mensch, or a serious man, who lives well and has a normal life. He is up for tenure at his college, he has a wife and two children, and he enjoys a typical middle class Midwestern lifestyle.

Then life starts to crumble. His wife announces to him that she wants a divorce because she wants to marry a man much older than he. She also wants the house and the children. His son is stealing from him to buy Columbia House records (remember that mail club?) and pot, and his daughter is perennially angry with him. His fat brother has no life or room and lays around their living room all day nursing his cyst on his neck. The chair of the tenure committee then informs him that his tenure could be endangered due to anonymous complaints about issues of “moral turpitude”. His doctor wants to visit with him about his recent x-rays. The neighbor is coming across the property boundaries. A student wants to sue him. A tornado is heading towards town. You get the picture. Sounding like the Book of Job? One can’t but imagine that the directors, the famed Coen Brothers, intended the film to be just that.

Like Job, Larry feels helpless and turns to his rabbis to help him understand why this all is happening to him. It all seems so random, and yet the thing that annoys him about his suffering — and it’s what annoys all of us at such moments — is that there is no denying that the suffering seems purposeful since it all is happening at once, and to the same person. It is typical Coen Brothers fare — a certain nihilism, but also a certain purpose behind the randomness. But Larry’s visits with the rabbis only leave him frustrated because this purpose is unclear. How can a loving God or a just God allow him to suffer this way? What is God trying to tell him? Is there some larger purpose he is supposed to see in the deluge?

In one very powerful scene, life completely falls apart for Larry and his brother, played by the recognizable actor Richard Kind. Larry wakes up in his cheap hotel room to find his brother — for whom life has never been easy as an unattractive lonely man with health problems — weeping uncontrollably by the bed. When Larry tries to comfort him, his brother screams out in pain, “It’s all one big heaping pile of sh-t.” And someone we can’t disagree. There is nothing noticeably good in his life.

In a life filled with randomness, grace and love sometimes happen too if we are “lucky”. Despite the hardships, some moments of accomplishment and grace come to Larry, but they are quickly met by even greater hardships so that the finer moments can never truly be enjoyed for fear of an impending storm. With that, I’ll stop my telling of the story so as not to ruin it for the viewer.

Some film goers will avoid this movie because it is a “downer” in the midst of trying economic times. That would be unfortunate because the film, for me, actually normalized some of the feelings that I’ve had during my past year of wilderness and trial. Perhaps those with easy lives, or for whom life really has not dealt many hardships, can’t sympathize. But if you have ever lived through a period of your life –or even most of your life, like Larry’s brother — where life mostly dealt you a series of hard blows, you will know that this film deals in reality and truth.

During this past year, I experienced the prolonged illness and death of my mother, the loss of a job I loved, the disappointment of friends who betrayed and hurt me, the scaling back that comes from a lower income, the complete loss of a good income, and the humbling experience of applying to countless jobs with only silence from employers.  No one could seem to really help me or understand the depth of the pain that comes from piling on. Yet, I also know that my trials were much less than others who have lost everything or those who have to search for food or a place to lay their head. There has even been some good times along the way to take away the sting of the bad.

Even if your year has been much better, my guess is that you have noticed how bad things tend to come all together, even with trivial items like technology. Last week, there was one day when my car engine check light came on, my Blackberry had problems and my computer screen went dark. How do we explain these collections of assorted random acts? The position of Mercury? God? or fate?

The most annoying and bewildering experience of times like this is not whether we will survive them — most of the time we do. The question that won’t go away is what the purpose of these times are. Some people who seem to never have experienced a hard day of life will tell you, “It will get better.” Well, sometimes it doesn’t. I expected an unemployment check after waiting 10 weeks, and instead I got a denial that forced me to wait again. Others suggest that “God has something better in mind for you.” Maybe so, but was suffering necessary for me to discover it? Would God like to explain that to my landlord who is waiting on an overdue rent payment? Other Secret/Olsteen/Oprah people will tell you to just envision and intend a better life, and all the good things you wish will be “attracted” to you. But what if you try to get up every day and keep going with a positive attitude and life just keeps getting worse? What does the Secret have to say to my friend Ginny who I visited on Monday who lost her dear son in the commuter link train accident last year in Los Angeles, and then her husband of over 50 years last month? And oh yea, her ranch almost burnt down last month, and her other son is sick. How do you “intend” your way out of that?

The most disturbing part of it all is that someone or some thing — fate, providence, the universe — really has targeted you. It’s not random. The events line up too well. But what happens when there is no message from it? No new life plan that emerges? What happens when it’s all blown to smithereens?

The Coens give us no answers. They only seem to affirm that life can sometimes be this way, and for some people, most of life won’t be a bed of roses. There is futility in trying to analyze it. The only answer the Coens give is the quote at the beginning of the film from Rumi, “Accept with simplicity what comes to you.”

If my experience over the last months have taught me anything, it is not that a grand plan is unfolding for my life. It is not that life will get better. It won’t always “pass”. But by the terrible grace of God, to quote Lincoln, it has taught me to submit to this purposeful randomness rather to control it or analyze it. It just is. So take life as it comes, enjoy the moments of grace and joy that emerge along the way, and then be silent before the mystery of it all and the Sovereign One who holds it all in His hands.

One Response to “"A Serious Man", The Coen Brothers, and Me”
  1. Michael says:

    Thanks for posting. Reminds me of the story of the Chinese farmer whose fortunes vascilate wildly and while his neighbors continuously tell him he is lucky (or unlucky), he says "it is not good or bad, it only is." I think of that a lot these days.

    Blessings on you, my friend.

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