Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
A glance at the poster alone will confirm that the Netflix Original series BoJack Horseman isn’t for everyone. A surreal animated program set in a universe shared by people and grotesquely anthropomorphized animals (the title character is a middle-aged bipedal horse with a beer gut), Horseman is tailor-made for a generation that grew up watching The Cosby Show and Full House with their parents before going off to college, discovering pot, and routinely staying up all night to watch Adult Swim. In other words, it’s weird for the sake of weird, combined with pop culture savvy for the sake of itself, and aimed squarely at the Millennial set.
We all want to be seen as good; if we’re honest about it, most of us even already think of ourselves as good, and having that idea challenged can be painful.This, though, is why its emotional depth is so surprising. Almost like a good horror movie, BoJack sinks its claws into you slowly and gently, till it’s too late to get away. BoJack seduced me with its silliness before delivering an emotional gut-punch I’m still reeling from.
In order to seriously discuss why the first season’s last two episodes are so thoroughly heartbreaking, I’ll have to give a lot away, so be warned: spoilers ahead. The emotional core of the story is the relationship between BoJack (voice of Will Arnett), a washed-up former sitcom star living in a private existential hell, and Diane Nguyen (voice of Alison Brie), his biographer, which over the course of the first season’s thirteen episodes moves from professional to friendly to quasi-romantic, only to smash headlong in the twin realities of Diane’s impending marriage and BoJack’s general terribleness — and as BoJack begins to realize that he can’t have all of Diane, he settles for seeking her simple approval.
The second-to-last episode, “Downer Ending,” consists mainly of an extended drug trip in which BoJack realizes what a disappointment his life has been, and concludes with the haunting image of BoJack standing in a dilapidated theater, pleading with an embarrassed Diane:
Diane, I need you to tell me that it’s not too late. I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good, Diane. Tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.
The silence that follows is deafening — and despite the series’ effort to break the tension by repeating a running gag before the credits roll, I found myself reeling from BoJack’s sudden, hopeless vulnerability. As the white words flashed on the black screen, the familiar theme song that I previously thought was silly now sounded haunting and mournful.
It’s a heartbreaking scene in part because of how obvious the answer is: duh, obviously BoJack isn’t a good person. By this point in the series, we’ve seen him (1) pick a petty fight with a war veteran over a box of muffins; (2) take sexual advantage of a drug-addicted colleague half his age; (3) deliberately sabotage his roommate’s one shot at artistic success; (4) get blind-drunk and steal the ‘D’ from the iconic Hollywood sign; (5) try to derail Diane’s wedding, several times; and finally (6) attempt to fire her for the simple crime of being honest in his biography — just to name a few things.
More importantly, though, it’s heartbreaking because of how thoroughly human it is. We all want to be seen as good; if we’re honest about it, most of us even already think of ourselves as good, and having that idea challenged can be painful. At the heart of the scene, though, is a certain existential conundrum: how can we even know what’s good? If we all consider ourselves to be good, then “good” is essentially a meaningless word, defined as “whatever I, the speaker, approve of.” Even if we seek confirmation in others, though, we’re just creating further paradoxes: In BoJack’s case, he’s seeking Diane’s approval only because he sees goodness in her — but if BoJack, arguably a bad person, has judged Diane to be a good person, how accurate can we even expect his judgment of her to be?
We all talk as though the word “good” means something objective, but we’re continually redefining it to mean whatever is convenient for us. BoJack has clearly been doing this his whole life, behaving as selfishly as he wants in order to maintain his wealth and isolation, but still thinking of himself as a good person “underneath all that” — continually defining “goodness” by whatever happens to be synonymous with his own essence. It’d be easy to reassure ourselves that we don’t do this, but consider that those who are doing it are rarely aware they are. BoJack, for instance, was completely oblivious to this reality until Diane’s biography held up a mirror to show him his true nature, like some sort of picture of DorianJack Horseman.
Is the idea of goodness completely arbitrary, then? Some, attempting to define it otherwise, have appealed to seemingly less ephemeral standards: basic empathy, public consensus, the somewhat nebulous idea of “human flourishing” — but under scrutiny, each standard reveals itself to be just as arbitrary as any other: How do we know empathy is good? What makes public opinion good? Why is it good for humans to flourish? Declaring anything at all to be “good” requires the pre-adoption of a set of values that define goodness — in some sense, an act of incredible epistemological arrogance. On what grounds can I declare my own values to define anything?
Some see theism as the solution to this problem, answering that “goodness” is whatever God says is good; this claim, though, has failed to stand up to philosophical scrutiny since at least Socrates. In his famous dialog with Euthyphro, he poses a question that’s bothered theologians ever since: are good behaviors good because God says they are, or does God simply acknowledge what is already good? It’s a serious problem for the believer, since it means that either goodness is indeed arbitrary — and could change at God’s whim — or goodness exists as something transcendent of even God Himself, thus calling into question His authority. When you’re being “good,” are you following the whims of a capricious God, or are you submitting yourself to a higher authority than even God Himself? (And…where would such an authority come from?)
Jesus actually offers a rather simple — and therefore eternally frustrating — solution to this in the Gospel of Mark. “Why do you call me good?” he asks a man who inquires of Him. “No one is good except God alone.” It’s a strange thing for a Man claiming divinity to say, but His point is certainly in line with the rest of Scripture. “There is none who is righteous; no, not one,” as Paul tells us. Goodness is not something that can be performed or achieved; goodness is something God claims wholly for Himself.
In other words, “goodness” refers not to a list of behaviors to which God has given His official stamp of approval; rather, it refers to the nature in which God has existed from eternity. God is not merely the arbiter of goodness — He is also the source of all goodness. The only way to become good is to beg to share in the holiness of God — as Jesus tells us elsewhere, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Not those who “try to be good,” but those who know they aren’t good and can only beg for table scraps from the One who is. Seen in this light, BoJack’s rock-bottom moment is even more haunting: not only does he not know what goodness is, he doesn’t even know where to start looking. Ultimately, he’s asking the human will to guide him in finding goodness, and the human will is notoriously fickle.
The show’s writers are evidently aware of this. In the final episode, “Later,” Diane voices the deceptively simple observation, “Either you know what you want, and then you don’t get what you want; or you get what you want, and then you don’t know what you want.” It’s appropriate, given Diane’s situation. Having finally achieved the fame she’s dreamed of through BoJack’s biography, she now has her pick of follow-up projects; but presented with the choice to do something classically “good” — documenting humanitarian work in the third world — she instead chooses a cushy job as consultant on a Hollywood film, where she’ll be allowed to “sit on your ass and eat bonbons.” (BoJack Horseman is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them.)
Diane makes this choice despite having spent much of the series as its de facto moral compass — and, more importantly, despite having seen up-close the destruction that fame and self-indulgence have wrought on BoJack’s soul. One of the key themes of BoJack, though, is the alienation engendered by Hollywood glitz — the nasty habit that wealth and superficiality have of preventing even knowledge of self, let alone knowledge of God. Ultimately, this is why BoJack will stick with me — not its hilarity or its strangeness (though it has plenty of both), but its bottomless, haunting emptiness. We all yearn for good, but how many of us are willing to pay the price to even learn what “good” is?
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