Whatever Happened to Gary Cooper?

“Nowadays everybody’s got to go to shrinks and counselors, and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know is once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up. And then it’s dysfunction this and dysfunction that and dysfunction va fa culo!”


The above exchange took place in the first episode of the landmark HBO series The Sopranos, in what was either the second or third session between psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi and mobster Tony Soprano.  Following a series of panic attacks, Tony begins seeing Dr. Melfi in hopes of revealing whatever underlying stress has been causing the attacks.  Tony is uncomfortable with the arrangement on several levels.  He chalks it up to being Italian and male – “Look, it’s impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist,” and viewers are quick to understand that Tony is mostly reluctant because a mob capo would never, ever meet with a psychiatrist.  (Indeed, this revelation at the end of season one results in an attempt on Tony’s life).   These issues aside, however, Tony still seems to be fundamentally bothered by the idea of therapy.  He argues that such an endeavor will not help, but instead will only lead to more and more dysfunction. 

Of course, in a sense he is exactly right.  On the surface, many of us could agree with Tony’s complain.  We do live in an age where our therapeutic culture has proven to be paralyzing.  We are so busy talking about our problems that we often fail to get anything accomplished.  We drown in a sea of overanalyzation.  The great Southern writer Walker Percy has much to say on this point in this nonfiction, and even a few of his fictional characters – Binx Bolling, Will Barrett, Thomas More – seem to deal with this problem.  I do not think that vulnerability and honesty (at least on an emotional level) are their own virtues outside of very personal relationships.  So when Tony Soprano rants about the slow death of Gary Cooper, I have to admit I am deeply sympathetic.  I believe that as a culture we miss that stoicism; how else to explain our fascination with John Wayne, Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi and, yes, Gary Cooper?  (Ever seen Johnny Cash’s video for his cover of the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt?”  It is so disconcerting because Cash is physically unable to remain stoic.)

However much I may agree that our world is too therapeutic, we cannot apply this rhetoric to the Gospel.  With God, there is no such thing as the strong, silent type.  Indeed, Tony Soprano betrays this in the scene mentioned above, when, after persistent questioning by Dr. Melfi, he admits that he is depressed.  And not only is he depressed, he is depressed because some Canadian geese that had spent time in his pool have flown south.  How pathetic!  And yet so are we.  We are that weak ourselves.  Before the Cross we lose our masks and our personal constructs – we have no more persona and image.  We are left naked, as it were.  This is what the Gospel does to us.  Dr. Melfi lets Tony vent and rage against whatever it is – social patterns, marriage, his lazy, no-count friends – and then when he has exhausted himself, she goes for the kill. 

 “Are you depressed?”

Tony has nothing left.  His guard has been let down and he no longer has the energy for anything but to say “yes.”  Like Dr. Melfi’s gentle questions, the Gospel is equally persistent.  Eventually, it will out us for what we are – depressed, lonely, hurt, angry.  Whatever it is we are, it will show us that we are – fundamentally, thoroughly and totally – not ok.

We are, as Luther said, beggars.  And the sooner we understand this, the better.  Look at Jesus’ parable in Luke 14: 15-23.  A rich man wants to throw party, but none of his friends are willing to come.  They have excuse after excuse – business, family, etc.  (A few lessons there, to be sure).  The rich man – generous to the core – has no time for these excuses, and is so irate at his friends’ refusal that he tells his servants to go find every hobo and hoodlum in town and invite them to the party instead.  The party is filled with “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”  The party is filled with those, in other words, who have been stripped of all pretenses and are no longer able to conceive of themselves as anything but what they really are, which is to say, again, poor, crippled, blind and lame.  This is where Tony Soprano finds himself, if only for a moment. He has admitted that he is depressed.  His life is empty.  He has some good things, to be sure, but they simply are not enough to keep him going. More importantly, Tony has stopped making excuses and when pressed, he has owned up to the fact that he has run out of gas.

Let me note that I do not believe that our key to spiritual well-being is found in simply “being honest with God” as though he were Oprah sitting on her couch.  No, our ability to admit that we are not Gary Cooper (or Billy Graham or Tim Tebow or…) and that we are in fact poor pathetic beggars only comes though a working of God’s Holy Spirit.  After all, those beggars in Jesus’ parable did not crash the party.  They were invited.  And so are we.  We are invited to lay down our pretenses, lay down our masks and personas and own up to our nothingness.  We are invited to win by losing.  We are invited to live by dying.  If we admit who we are not, we are ever closer to admitting who we are.  There is a great feast that awaits us at the foot of the Cross.


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