“This door was intended for you.
Now I am going to shut it.”
— Kafka, “Before the Law”
We had previously explored Hamlet’s notion of readiness in relation to the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared.” We shall now examine certain factors that undermine the ready state of mind. If there is a mystery here, it is how we can be oblivious to good fortune.
At every moment, there exists certain opportunities. As to whether we can peer through the fog of our life, so as to discern these opportunities, is another story. Is a lack of intelligence the cause of our benighted condition? Or is the real culprit, paradoxically, intelligence itself?!
Consider the conclusion to the comedy Dumber and Dumber (1994). [Warning: plot spoiler ahead: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO42rxrXpAc] After a series of misadventures, Lloyd and Harry (played by Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels) find themselves, once again, down on their luck — no jobs, no money, not even a car. Furthermore, Lloyd has discovered that the woman whom he has been pursuing romantically is married. As they walk along the barren highway together, Lloyd laments to Harry: “When are we ever going to catch a break?”
At that moment, a tour bus bearing the sign “Hawaiian Tropic Bikini Tour” pulls up along side of them. We hear the joyous “Hallelujah Chorus,” from Handel’s “Messiah.” It is apparent that a very lucky break has finally arrived for the boys, and that this will be their salvation. The door of the bus opens and out comes three beautiful, bikini-clad women. Here is what ensures:
Bikini-Clad Woman: “We’re going on a national bikini tour and we need two oil boys to grease us up before each competition.”
Harry: “You are in luck. There’s a town a few miles that way. I’m sure you’ll find a couple of guys there.”
Bikini-Clad Woman (puzzled and perplexed): OK. Thanks.
The bus pulls off
Lloyd to Harry: Do you realize what you’ve done?!
Lloyd runs frantically after the bus. The bus stops, and the door opens.
Lloyd (out of breath, to the women): You’ll have to excuse my friend. He’s a little slow… The Town is back that way. (Lloyd points to where the town is.)
The bus pulls off.
Lloyd: Wow, a couple of lucky guys are going to be driving around with those girls for the next couple of months.
Harry: Don’t worry. We’ll catch our break too. We just got to keep our eyes open.
The idea here is that Lloyd and Harry were too dumb to take advantage of this golden opportunity. But, in truth, they made the kind of cognitive error for which intellectuals have a proclivity. I.E., when the bikini women asked them if they knew of anyone who could work as oil boys, Lloyd and Harry shifted into the mindset of distant observers. They became experts, commenting on where oil boys might be found.
As observers, they forgot that they are also existential beings, i.e., guys looking for a job, and for love. That is why the scene would have made more sense if Lloyd and Harry were college professors, for it is a certain abstract intellectuality that often gets in the way of our discerning and capitalizing on opportunities. Their mode of thinking and action contrasts with many of the other characters in the film, who are ruthless opportunists, incapable of adopting a disinterred, objective attitude.
Naturally, in real life, few people are as oblivious to opportunity as Lloyd and Harry. But the scene really registers with filmgoers, and has made the film a cult classic, for it symbolizes the obtuseness that most of us display, from time to time.
There was another, related factor that blinded Lloyd and Harry to the tour bus opportunity. Throughout the film, they display a certain good-natured selflessness, which is congruent with the conclusion of the film where they, in their concern for the women on the bus, neglect their own self-interest.
Thus, if Lloyd and Harry are idiots, they are akin to Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, who was highly intelligent. Myshkin’s selflessness blinded him to the machinations of other people. It’s that quixotic naïveté and obtuseness that makes Myshkin very admirable as a person, but, in Dostoevsky’s estimation, an idiot — thus the title of his novel.
To summarize, there were two factors that blinded Lloyd and Harry to the opportunity before them:
1. Their cognitive shift from existing beings to distant observers. Thus they forgot that they too are guys and, therefore, able to work as oil boys. That shift in itself is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is a sign of a morally evolved person. It’s just that this shift occurred, for Lloyd and Harry, at precisely the wrong moment. In comedy as in life, timing is everything.
2. Selflessness — here, again, at the wrong moment — also made Lloyd and Harry forget that they were existential beings, and capable of being oil boys. Some would say that Lloyd and Harry were not all there. But it would be more proper to say that they were not there at all, since “being there” means that one is an existential being, who is aware of oneself as such. (Jerzy Kosinski’s novel about an idiot, named Chauncey Gardner, is ironically entitled Being There.)
The ability to know when to get on the bus doesn’t only apply to success in business and love, but to all domains, from the mundane to the spiritual. In regard to the latter, the door that opens may be — as in Kafka’s parable, “Before the Law” — the doorway to spiritual salvation. Naturally, we must be sure to board the…
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