Louis C.K. on Our Neighbor’s Bowl and What “Fair” Is

Writing books is a strange process. When you’re in the middle of creating something this big, it tends to consume your every waking moment in some way. I can’t watch TV or have a conversation with a neighbor without my mind searching the content for narrative or thematic threads to weave into the chapter I’m working on. It can be a little bit maddening, at least for those around us, I expect. But I love it.

One unlikely wonderful source for material as of late for me has been the show “Louie,” by comedian Louis C.K. To say he’s irreverent would be underselling his shock value. He’s a little bit like Trey Parker and Matt Stone of Southpark fame in that he levels the playing field of propriety simply by making nothing off limits. Some might not be able to get past his coarse and occasionally nihilistic approach to life, but I consider him to be nothing short of prophetic in his observations about the human condition.

I’ve been working most recently on a chapter about God’s notion of justice as compared with the human idea about justice, and once again, C.K. provided a wealth of material. I’m watching through the seasons on demand with my wife, Amy, and last night, we watched an episode in which Louie is preparing a special meal for his kids. He has an extra slice of mango left over after making smoothies for his two daughters, and so he offers it to his oldest. Not surprising, the younger daughter takes some issue with this apparent injustice.

“She got a mango popsicle and I didn’t,” she whines, although the so-called popsicle really just is a slice of fruit speared with a fork. But the fact that her sister got one and she didn’t makes it the most important slice of mango in the world at that moment.

“That’s right,” he says, and continues cooking. Sometimes she gets things you don’t and sometimes, it goes the other way. That’s just how life works.

“But daddy,” she pleads, “it’s not fair!”

“Who said anything about fair?” he asks, a little incredulous. “You were just fine without it until she got it. What’s the problem?”

“It’s just not fair,” she insisted. “If she gets one, I should get one too.”

“Look,” he says, “turning toward her and leaning down to meet her eyes “the only time you need to worry about what’s your neighbor’s bowl is if you’re checking to make sure they have enough.” then he turns back to the stove and the girl, a little stunned, walks away.

Wow.

Time and again, we see examples in the Bible of God’s “unfair” justice. The story of the Prodigal Son is unfair to the more faithful son who stays behinds and tends to his father’s estate. The vineyard laborers who work for only an hour and get the same wage as those who worked all day seem unfairly compensated when compared with those whose hands are blistered and bleeding from a full day’s labor. Adam and Eve didn’t get what they had coming. The examples go on and on.

But if Jesus is, in fact, the example to which we look, let’s consider for a moment the point wat which he is near death on the cross, abandoned by all who claimed to love him, taunted and tortured by figures of authority, and all because he refused to abandon his message of radical, empire-shaking love that stodd firm in the face of any force, fear or hate intent on its destruction.

Talk about unfair.

And in the culminating moment, when Jesus would be justified in calling out in despair about this injustice, condemning those who fell so woefully short, he calls on God to offer them mercy and forgiveness: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

How is this possible? How can anyone see past such grief and suffering, still fully resting within the embrace of that radical love about which he preached?

It’s not something we’ll ever entirely understand, at least not in this life. This is one of those examples I look to and say that I’m glad God is God and I’m not. I can’t even look at my neighbor’s car/home/job/whatever and not think about myself, let alone keep others at the center of my heart when even they are the ones with hammer and nail in hand.

But it is something toward which we can look, over and again, something toward which we can reorient ourselves when we’ve lost our way once again, something toward which we can take small, tentative steps, day after day, even if we stumble and fall back occasionally along the way.

It is the summit toward which the arc of history bends. It is “Thy kingdom come.” And fortunately for all of us, it’s anything but fair.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • TippyTowPowWow

    This came up in my Google feed because it was about Louis C.K. but then I read about the phrase “God’s notion of justice” and a huge gust of “don’t give a shit” overcame me. Keep peddling nonsensical drivel made up by idiots 2000+ years ago. I’m sure your book will be another dust gatherer on the bookshelves of libraries for years to come.

    I kept reading hoping you’d actually have some news about Louis, but unfortunately it was just you trying to shoehorn an advertisement for your dumb book about Christianity while invoking the name of Louis.

    • http://www.facebook.com/mondojohnson Christopher Johnson

      I am an atheist and Louis C.K. fan and am embarrassed by your reaction. I enjoy reading intelligent blogs by people with opposing beliefs (the whole patheos family)… I often find common ground with the folk wisdom I discover; “fairness”, good behavior, and trying to improve the world are things seem universally commendable pursuits.

      The post dedicated more space to giving props to our man Louis and his trenchant observations than it did pushing Christianity. And, of course, you were free to surf away the instant the offensive phrase popped up. But I’d advise reading on – if you’re truly a freethinker, you can gain insight without sacrificing any of your beliefs.

    • Colin Smith-Clark

      I agree with Chris–I like Louis and I don’t believe in gods, but you don’t have to be a jerk whenever someone writes something about him from a different viewpoint. Just because he’s an atheist doesn’t mean he’s just “our guy” and no one else can listen to him.

      But speaking of the episode, that’s actually not how the scene plays out. How you describe it here is how Louie really, really wants it to turn out–but it’s not what actually happens, which is this: Jane comes in complaining about fairness. Louie sees this as a great moment to teach his daughter an important life lesson; life isn’t fair, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. He tells her this. Blank stare. “But it’s not fair!” The thing about your neighbor’s bowl–he trips over the words a little, still getting a blank stare, tries to say it again. “But it’s not fair!” At this point it’s still not working out for Jane, so she shifts tactics: if I can’t get a mango pop, can I have a calcium chocolate? Defeated, Louie relents. “Thank you, Daddy!”

      This is Louis C.K.’s schtick: he’s a guy who knows what it means to be good, but he also knows how much the tables are stacked against actually acting out those beliefs. He tries and tries, and, like most of us, he fails more than he succeeds. His scenes with his daughters drive that home even more–he really, really wants them to turn out to be good people, but it’s so damn hard. Is he succeeding? Does it make a difference that he tries, even if it doesn’t seem to do anything? There’s some optimism in the tragicomedy, but Father Knows Best it ain’t.

  • Eric

    Actually, I hold this same sense of fairness when deailing with my kids. The fact that one child gets something that another child does not get, doesn’t make something “unfair.” We equate fairness with equality – if he has a mango pop, I should get one too. However, true fairness comes down to what is deserved/earned. Do I deserve or did I earn a mango pop? If not, the fact that my sibling got one does not make it unfair to me.
    Great post and I wish that more parents held this same view of fairness when dealing with their kids…

  • Chanda

    Louis C.K. fan here as well. Just wanted to point out that the scene did not end as described. She went on to insist that it was unfair, he then offered chocolate to appease her (which it did) and he was sure to ask that she give one to her sister as well so as to be “fair” and avoid this scenario playing out all over again.

    To be honest, I skimmed the rest, because I have zero interest in how a simple bit of wisdom – worded beautifully – could be twisted and inflated to include heaven and hell.


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