The Big Lebowski and Vocation
The Big Lebowski is a 1998 cult classic film that follows a charismatic character named Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski as he experiences a series of life-altering events (Coen, “The Big Lebowski,” 1998). Depicted as lazy and unproductive but clever, Lebowski is a perfect candidate for an inquiry into the meaning of vocation, particularly in the West, cultural notions of success, and the judgment that people meet when they fall short of expectations. Moreover, The Big Lebowski and the Dude provide a postmodern setting and narrative in which to examine depth psychology themes of the Hero’s Journey and life purpose. It is my hope that applying these themes to a storyline that many Millennials and Gen-Xers can personally identify with can infuse these concepts with new meaning and utility.
It is easy, in our contemporary world, to fall into the mental trap that “vocation” equals “profession.” In fact, the word vocation comes from the Latin root voco, meaning voice, call, or summons. In the Roman Catholic and other Christian traditions, vocation refers specifically to the spiritual mission to which every individual is called, whether that be to marriage and family, the clergy, a life of secular singlehood, or any number of other paths by which we can fulfill the soul’s greater mission of growing toward sainthood, or a sense of spiritual completion or enlightenment. Clearly, to equate vocation with one’s mode of earning a living is not only to cheapen it but also to place the Western capitalist ideal of material prosperity, or of fitting in with the secular world, above the task of spiritual or psychological growth and integration. In The Big Lebowski, we see the consequences of this topsy-turvy set of priorities put to comedic effect as the Dude goes on his own Hero’s Journey, following a “pure” vocation and encountering the characters along the way who have swallowed and identified with the Western view of vocation in various ways and to varying degrees.
Joseph Campbell may have coined the phrase, but as he acknowledged throughout his work, the journey itself existed well before he started writing about it. When applied to vocation, the Hero’s Journey can be seen as a map of meaning and purpose. In The Big Lebowski we can identify these same elements and trace the journey that the main character takes toward psychological integration. This paper explores The Big Lebowski and its main character through the lenses of Joseph Campbell’s description of the Hero’s Journey and James Hillman’s “acorn” theory as presented in The Soul’s Code. First it will trace the Dude’s journey from call to adventure through his numerous trials and ultimate return, making a special note of the film’s differentiation between process and outcome and its importance in following the path of the Self. Then it will examine the film through Hillman’s acorn metaphor, drawing parallels between fate and the nature of the screenplay and the hero’s discovery that those traits which society deems unacceptable within its materialist concept of vocation are actually the very strengths that allow the Dude to bring his acorn self to full fruition. Finally, it will consider the role of the Shadow on the Hero’s Journey and the development of the Self, and the ways in which it appears in this iconic character.
The Hero’s Journey
The Dude is introduced to us as a man who has no real purpose, who has a daily routine that seems to produce no substance or material benefit for himself or others. He is identified by the narrator as being one of the laziest men currently living, but that his laziness wasn’t the extent of who he was; the film asks us to look past the Dude’s initial looks or status to find out who he truly is. Despite the narrator’s plea, the film makes it plan that the Dude has no obvious purpose. This is important, because it tells us at the outset that the film is going to make the case that vocation and life purpose do not necessarily come in a package that is expected or accepted by the world. It may not even be identified by the individual who has the vocation as being purposeful. The narrator indicates in the introduction that Jeffrey’s true purpose must be experienced. The Dude does so by following the Hero’s Journey; we do it by following his story in the film.
The Call to Adventure
The film follows the Hero’s Journey right from the start. As Kristen Kieffer writes in Breaking Down the Hero’s Journey Plot Structure, “after establishing your hero’s known world and their dissatisfaction with that world, it’s time to interrupt their everyday lives with a call-to-adventure” (Kieffer, 2016). Though the Dude seems to be accepting of his current situation in life, it is possible that there is some unconscious or unacknowledged dissatisfaction with his mundane life and a desire to mix things up. Soon enough, three strangers break into the Dude’s house, confusing him for another Jeffrey Lebowski, try to extort him, and then, realizing their mistake, urinate on his rug and leave. The adventure has begun.
Though for most people, having just been assaulted would be the highest concern, the Dude is more worried about his destroyed rug. Along his path toward recompense, the Dude encounters strange and interesting individuals and has to depend on his friends and acquaintances to help him meet challenges and get back to where he started. He also has to face guardians who try to block his way. The Dude must stand his ground and accept who he truly is in order to succeed. It is the textbook Hero’s Journey.
By the end of the film, the Dude is still the same lazy nobody he was at the beginning of the story, so the return essential to completing the Hero’s Journey can be difficult to spot. Still harder to see is the film’s underlying message—the message that has earned the film its cult following. Namely, it’s not the conclusion but going through the process that brings the Dude full circle. His calling is to embrace the strengths of his nature and learn not to accept judgment by his critics, including the viewers. The Dude is pulled by unseen archetypal forces that drive his story to new highs and lows even as he retains his true colors. He faces the most bizarre circumstances with an admirable ease. He also stresses over small, unimportant things, which makes him human. As viewers watch the film unfold, they see the Dude in themselves.
Calling as Process
From the perspective of the Hero’s Journey, the Dude’s vocation is not fulfilled upon his completion of a series of tasks, for which he is rewarded at the end. It is not the Medieval tale of the knight who goes forth into the unknown, secures the grail, and brings it home for his ultimate reward. Instead, in this postmodern, Hero’s Journey, the vocation is the call to adventure itself, and it is highly relational: His life’s meaning, during the brief period in which the story takes place, is found in how he touches the lives of others, the profound forgiveness that he is able to offer, and the genuine passion and love he spontaneously displays for the little things in life. The Dude may not be able to describe the meaning of his life in a single word—he may not even have pondered the idea—but he seems to be okay just being himself. This is in fact the most profound sense of purpose and calling.
The Soul’s Code
In his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman places vocation in terms of his acorn theory. The acorn, he explains, is a metaphor for the life force, or purpose, or calling, that lives within each individual from birth and is pushed into fruition with nourishment from the guides we encounter as we move in the direction in which life is asking us to go. Hillman describes the calling as something “I must do, this is what I’ve got to have” or that inner feeling that I am incomplete without doing this thing (Hillman, 2017, p. 3). There is a fated quality to it; you can’t not follow the soul’s calling. The Dude’s story illustrates this concept very well.
The Acorn Theory
Hillman’s acorn theory, in the most basic terms, asserts that each individual contains a concept that defines who they are. This concept resides within us at birth. We may try to strive away from this concept, but ultimately, any attempt to steer ourselves away from what we are meant to be is successful (Hillman, 2017, pp. 11-12). Jeffrey Lebowski is a prime example of someone deeply, if unconsciously, connected with his acorn self. The Dude is continually pulled every which way, yet regardless of how far he strays, he is always pushed back on track in a specific direction.
But at the film’s conclusion, the Dude seems the same. He is back into his routine, which is dominated by his Zenlike exercise of bowling, yet he is still changed in some way that we can sense. He has lost a friend, he may become a father, and he has managed to get a new rug (one even bigger than the last).
What does this mean in terms of the acorn theory? The Dude is an anomaly when it comes to fate and meaning, because he simply has no desire to ask the question, “What is the meaning of my life?” This is something to ponder because most people of today’s Western culture believe it is essential to ask this question. The ability to just accept life for what it is, to go with the flow of life, seems, well, Dude-like. Focusing, even ruminating, on meaning, rather than just living, has become a life purpose in its own right, and a signal of a kind of intellectual or spiritual status. But watching The Big Lebowski again brings up the question of what would life be like if we simply lived as the Dude does. Would we feel that as a vocation? Would others see the meaning of our lives? Are fate and meaning present in our lives regardless of how much we think about them, listen and watch for signs from the universe, or try to redirect our vocation and passion? It is hard to say, and even harder to ponder.
The Dude is thrown onto his path by the randomness of fate. In a case of mistaken identity, his attackers are unaware that they have the wrong guy, even though to the viewer the difference is obvious. The Lebowski that the intruders are looking for is a rich man, who lives in a mansion and whose wife owes money to a questionable filmmaker. The Dude has none of those things. It could only be fate that initiates the whole process.
The Dude could have easily accepted his supposed fate as a deadbeat who’s just been robbed, but he does the opposite. He feels pulled in a direction and follows the impulse with action. In Hillman’s acorn theory, the Dude pushes past victimhood (Hillman, 2017, p. 6) and becomes the self-made hero. The Dude accepts both sides of his fate throughout the film, thereby staying in a Zenlike mindset or flow.
The Child’s Perspective
In many ways, the Dude is like a child. He simply tries things, acts out of instinct, and remains transparently himself. As Hillman (2017) suggests, he is trying to live two lives: the life he wants—the lazy life of the deadbeat, as an outsider entranced in the Western model might describe it—and the more acceptable mainstream life others are trying to push onto him. Throughout the film the Dude stumbles time and again as he tries to play the role others expect. He ultimately fails to fit in, but manages still to make it through, though not unscarred. Similarly, in our own lives we play the roles of the child and adult at the same time, achieving varying levels of success.
Loss and Loneliness
The Dude’s true character becomes apparent in his ability to deal with loss and loneliness. He has few friends or family. He has two primary relationships, his friends Walter Sobchak and Theodore Donald (Donny). The latter dies after a heart attack, and Walter and the Dude are left alone with each other. They both bounce back quickly from grief to celebration of Donny’s life in a way that is meaningful to him. Hillman might describe the Dude’s way of coping with loneliness and loss, allowing such experiences and emotions to pass through him with little resistance, as an acceptance of fate (Hillman, 2017, p. 55). Viewers can sit back and admire the maturity of the Dude’s character, especially in contrast to the resistance and reactivity with which his friend sometimes meets the challenges of life.
Upbringing and Culture
In The Soul’s Code Hillman explores creativity and its relationship to our upbringing and culture (Hillman, 2017, p. 132). In looking at the Dude’s life and his sometimes-outlandish view of reality, we see aspects of creativity that make him stand out from his peers. Though not creative in terms of making objects or works of art, he is creative in his actions, with a resourcefulness that allows him to find out-of-the-box ways to solve problems. He adapts in dramatic ways to the environments that he finds himself in, as the characters that he encounters come from many different cultures and status levels. He also is a mediator in that he is able to calm others who are more aggressive. This is a skill that requires a great deal of creativity. The Dude stands outside of traditionalism and sees conflict in different ways—and these characteristics are likely the sources of his creativity (Hillman, 2017, p. 133).
While naturally the audience is aware that the unlikely events that unfold in The Big Lebowski are literally predetermined in the screenplay, part of the magic of the movie is the way the Dude seems completely oblivious to how outlandish some of these events are. He simply accepts them. This is similar to the way in our own lives we remove or ignore the facts, or fate, and instead live in a kind of fiction in which we are more self-determining than we actually are (Hillman, 2017, p. 172). It may be human nature to project the truth onto the screen, into stories, so that we can safely see for a moment the truth that we, too, are in a sense running on a script.
A Vocation of Mediocrity
When it comes to vocation in the modern Western sense, Hillman explains, “our sociology, psychology, and economics—that is, our civilization itself—seem unable to estimate the worth of people who do not stand out” (Hillman, 2017, pp. 255-256). The Dude himself is perhaps the perfect example of “not standing out” according to societal standards. He could not care less what society has to say about who he should be. He is often described by the millionaire Lebowski as a “worthless bum!” The way the Dude is judged by the rich and famous shows us the extent to which culture determines a person’s value. But these characters don’t see (and possibly the Dude himself doesn’t see) the ways in which life, or fate, is using him (as it uses the other characters, too), to fulfill some great purpose: to show the film’s world that although the Dude is unemployed and postdates checks for sixty-nine cents, his self-worth is apparent. He confronts trauma bravely and treats his friends and acquaintances with dignity and a sense of egalitarianism. Like the more materialistic characters in the movie, the Dude is bringing something tangible into the world; he’s just not trying to determine for himself what that is going to be.
The Dude Is Not His Job
Though we often think of vocation as job, this is not the case. As James Hollis stated, “we may choose careers, but we do not choose vocation” (Hollis, 2006, p. 149). The Big Lebowski shows this truth in an entertaining way. All the main characters, but especially the Dude, are never shown to be in a profession. Side characters, on the other hand, are all in positions of servitude, such as the millionaire Lebowski’s butler. He seems to have no mind of his own, shrugging off all seriousness and personal opinions with a fake laughter.
The Dude is referred to as being “in between jobs” and spends most of his time lounging around smoking cannabis or bowling. His friends also meet up often to bowl, using the ritual more as a way to connect and relax than to compete and keep score. Although the Dude is jobless, he has an underlying meatiness to his personality, a joie de vivre that extends past the simple interactions onscreen. In this way, the film tells us in a comical way that life is not about a job, and that the way we live our lives is our true vocation.
In contrast to the Dude, Walter is highly aware of his position in life and associates himself with his role as a military veteran. He often brings up the fact that he fought in Vietnam. When things don’t go his way, he reacts with intense anger and aggression. His anger seems to stem from his identification with the rules society has set for him. In one scene, the Dude, Walter, and Donny are bowling together during a league game, and Walter gets extremely offended when an opponent steps over the line when he pitches the ball. A fight breaks out; Donny and the Dude are willing to let it go, but Walter exclaims, “Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?” Walter’s narcissistic attitude toward others and his surroundings seems to be generated by his false identification with his past profession and rank. Individuals who identify so personally with a concrete vocation experience great resistance and regret when outside circumstances change.
If the Dude can provide us any takeaways regarding the differences between him and Walter, it is that personality development is most well rounded and contains the most strength when developed with care over time. Jung teaches this concept of patience when it comes to developing the personality (and undoubtedly informs Hillman’s acorn theory) when he says, “Personality is a seed that can only develop by slow stages throughout life” (Jung, 1954/1981, p. 171).
Shadow and Vocation
Much has been said about the seriousness surrounding the Shadow and its naturally dark nature. Keiron Le Grice writes that for us to grow as individuals we must take “to a position of weakness, in which one is confronted by all those aspects of experience in which one feels inferior, guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, judged, and so forth” (Le Grice, 2016, p. 44). This often means that we must face our own darkness in very serious and real ways if we intend to grow. Comedy is one way we can face the Shadow, showing characters and concepts in ways that allow us to recognize our vulnerabilities and unconscious tendencies without too much resistance. We laugh at those who stand on a stage and embody the absurdity that is life, showing us honestly what we think is impossible for us. Yet this impossibility is funny for the very reason that we relate to it.
The Comedic Side of the Shadow
The Dude in all his glory is a clear representation of the comedic side of the Shadow that is inside of us who laugh at him. His mistakes and flaws are laughable because they represent the desire inside of us that we seek to be like him, an individual with a childlike free spirit, whose worries are few, and who engages with the world on his terms. In relationship to vocation, this comical view of the Dude is a healing tool which provides us a way to express not only our internal desire but also the Dude’s purpose. If we were to compare the Dude to an iconic or archetypal figure, he would be a savior type; like Jesus, the Dude takes on the burden of the Shadow for those associated with him in the film, as well as the viewers watching the story unfold.
The Dude reminds us that we must face our own Shadows, too. This is expressed during one scene in the film in which the Dude is drugged by the director Jackie Treehorn. The Dude experiences a psychedelic trip of bliss followed by the terror of his Shadow. The Dude runs away from the images that appear to him, and his true fears are made visible to the audience. Even the Dude, with his free, loving, and flowing attitude, has a dark side.
The Dude’s Impact
The Big Lebowski is full of dynamic and creative characters, but the Dude is at its center. He represents what writers and directors Ethan and Joel Coen had hoped to create when they developed the film: a hyper-realistic image of a very real experience of life. The actor who portrayed the Dude, Jeff Bridges, has reflected extensively on how playing the character has impacted his own personal being; his book The Dude and the Zen Master explores how the character’s mindset has affected him and others (Bridges & Glassman, 2014).
In the book, Bridges explores the concept of vocation. He notes a scene in which the wealthy Lebowski is talking with the Dude about his own profession and extolling the importance of contributing to the collective society, seeing parallels in his own thinking. Bridges also writes that life for him is part practice and part play, and that it’s important to pursue both (Bridges & Glassman, 2014, p. 155). It seems that this is the purpose of life and of vocation: to find a happy medium between the two Lebowskis, to express creative action that contributes something truly meaningful to oneself and to the world, while also staying on a Zenlike course that doesn’t force matters. This, we identify as purpose.
The Big Lebowski may ultimately teach us that inquiring into our fate and purpose is unnecessary. However, unlike the Dude, we real-life humans do ponder life. And yet the Dude is a symbol of what many people would like to be in their lives. His transparency, childlike free spirit, and resourcefulness are refreshing. He never questions his nature or his intentions; he simply acts and then deals with the consequences. As real individuals, we do not approach life with such naivete. It would be unwise and possibly dangerous to do so. It would, however, be advisable to project onto the Dude the Shadow side of our internal psychology and see that we could embody some of the Dude’s traits to allow our vocation to express itself more naturally.
Vocation does not equate to one’s job. The Big Lebowski demonstrates this, showing us characters of great depth without providing any backstory about where most of them work or how much money they have. The film itself is a wonderful statement that vocation encompasses all of who we are as individuals and that, although that picture may change over time, there is still a strong acorn inside of each and every one of us that is growing into the strong and powerful tree that we are to inevitably become.
Bridges, J., & Glassman, B. (2014). The Dude and the Zen Master. New York: Plume.
Hillman, J. (2017). The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Reprint Edition: Ballantine Books.
Hollis, J. (2006). Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up. New York: Gotham Books.
Jung, C. G. (1981). Development of Personality (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 17, pp. 1-171). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1954)
Kieffer, K. (2016, August 25). Breaking Down the Hero’s Journey Plot Structure – Well-Storied. Retrieved from https://www.well-storied.com/blog/heros-journey.
Le Grice, K. (2016). Archetypical Reflections: Insights and Ideas from Jungian Psychology. London: Muswell Hill Press.
PolyGram Film Entertainment. (1998). The Big Lebowski.
Lee is the creator of taileater.com as well as author of a number of published articles that deal with sleep, sleep paralysis, and lucid dreaming. Lee has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and is currently studying at John F. Kennedy University for his Masters in Consciousness and Transformative Studies.
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