2010-07-16

Job and the Just World Fallacy

The latest film by the Coen brothers, 'A Serious Man,' crept into theatres under the radar.  The style is undeniably theirs, but the structure of the film is subtly experimental and stands as a stark contrast to the Oscar-winning 'No Country for Old Men.'  Using images of a portable radio with one earpiece, "Don't You Want Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane, a hapless physics teacher stuck in a bad marriage, and the stark, desert-like expanse of 1960s suburban Iowa, the film is a retelling of the story of Job.  Not exactly a crowd pleaser.  Luckily the Coens knew this from the beginning, it seems, and the resulting film is like watching an absurdist, almost unrecognizable set up for the classic joke 'why did the chicken cross the road?'  Only there is no punchline.

Although the film is subdued, it is highly polarizing.  I personally liked it, simply because I spent every moment in rapt attention yet felt fully aware no resolution was coming.  The problem with telling the story of Job is that there is no explanation.  It is a reminder that most phenomena in the universe are so vast and inexplicable to the human mind that trying to reconcile an individual human life with the big picture isn't possible.  At least not from our perspective.  It is a question with no answer.

Recently, I stumbled upon an article that referenced the 'just world fallacy':  the concept that people get what they deserve, that suffering is punishment and happiness a reward for one's own deeds.  This concept has come into light with the dawn of cognitive behavioral therapy, a treatment for depression centered around the concept that the belief in an external force of justice outside of society is not only wrong, it is making people sick.  And why wouldn't we believe in divine justice?  All modern day religion and politics is based on this very concept.  We are being taught by every cultural institution a way of seeing the world that doctor's are now finding causes chronic, paralyzing sadness.  Human beings are simply not responsible for everything that happens.  To believe this hurts the human brain because it is fundamentally untrue.  When one is told the world is just and then compares that to observed reality, one of two options is inevitable:  slipping into delusion in order to keep this belief, or some bout of depression.  That is a strong statement, but I believe it to be true.  One can overcome the confusion of dealing with this fallacy, but it requires a painful departure from what we are taught to be the true nature of reality. 

I think Joel and Ethan would agree with me, though, given the ending of the film (spoliers ahead):  the approach of a massive tornado by students in the local high school.   Not only is this consistent with (the original) Job as the protagonist's son is among the threatened kids, it also serves as metaphor of the frightening changes we face in once again learning the difficult lesson that humanity is not the center of the universe.  Maybe they see, like I do, that people have forgotten this.  Maybe only a a few, rare people have ever grasped the concept at any given point in time.

The biblical story ends with the question "what right do we have to question God?"  Even if one doesn't believe in a God and instead looks to science and discovery for answers, the same question still lingers.  What right do we have to stand facing the universe only to say "what about me?"

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