I am making my way through the AMC Mad Men series. I saw the original series when it first came out almost ten years ago. Now I’m watching it again on Netflix.
I knew what I was in for. Since the presidential election I have been trying to better understand myself, others, and my country. The ugly bitterness of the election left me emotionally exhausted, and frankly, disappointed in people in general. I didn’t follow the chaos on Twitter, but Facebook was a primeval jungle of crude squabbling, angry rants, malicious name calling, and endless acts of blocking and unfriending people. Some of them relatives and close friends.
So after all of that, I decided to wander into Mad Men, the perfect setting for seeing the absolute worst in human hurt, pettiness, jealously, manipulation and betrayal. I thought that there, I might get some understanding of why, in certain circumstances, we sink, almost unconsciously and hopelessly, into such abysmal and damaging behavior.
Don Draper, the brilliant ad man for the Sterling and Cooper Advertising Agency, is a man tormented by his past, by cruel parents, and by the numbing ravages of war that often deeply scar individual soldiers for life.
When we are not loved, when we feel our worth threatened in some profoundly personal way, we survive on primal instincts that are not always in our own best interest or in the best interest of others. When we are faced with catastrophic experiences, and left to make questionable moral choices, choices that may destroy us at the core of ourselves but may also keep us alive, we make them anyway. Don Draper lives in this kind of compromising and alarming world inside himself. And it leaves him coldly indifferent to others while also being driven by passions and desires he will not or cannot control. Men fear, are jealous of, and often hate him. Women are caught in his web of manliness, his intellect, his power as a driven and successful professional. He’s polished, urbane, and handsome. Tall and well put together he attracts women, many of them ambitious and beautiful, but also vulnerable in certain ways, and in the end he breaks something good and decent inside them. Underneath his thinly held together sophistication lie shadowy, foreboding forces that eat away his humanity and keep him miserable.
He is, I think, an example of many if not most of us. If we have suffered some deep emotional injury, in our childhood, adolescence, or as adults, we identify with Don Draper. Our inner wounds always keep us in some kind of emotional conflict and we can either deal with them in healthy and responsible ways or we can ignore the pain, attempt to deaden it, or turn angry and bitter because of it.
The recent presidential election left the country facing things about ourselves that we don’t like. Perhaps in its raw repulsiveness it reminded us that we are all capable of just about anything. Candidates, media, and the rest of us.
In the movie, “Dr. Strange,” a highly successful surgeon is severely damaged in a car accident. His hands are ruined and his career seems over. He is left bitterly despondent but determined to get well. After a series of strange incidents he meets a sorcerer named Mordo who is rigidly committed to laws and codes that he says must be followed. Dr. Strange wants outside of those in order to find some way of transformation. Eventually he meets the Ancient One, a wise and mystical woman who understands Dr. Strange’s suffering. Mordo tells Dr. Strange to simply accept his fate, to follow the rules, and that is how he will rid himself of his demons. But the Ancient One says, “We never lose our demons; we only learn to live above them.”
This is the lesson Don Draper is destined to grapple with. His demons have gotten the best of him and he wants some resolution to his brokenness. It is the lesson we all have to eventually learn.
I have realized recently that in spite of the goodness in people, there are dark forces in all of us that are simply a part of our unfinished humanity. We are always, hopefully, striving to complete ourselves. It is a lifelong effort.
Buddhism teaches us that life is a collection of moments. Some good, some bad, some horrible. The goal is to free ourselves from attachment to any specific moment; to finally understand they all matter to make us who we are.
Don Draper eventually figures this out. So does Dr. Strange. Hopefully, the rest of us will as well. Perhaps the election, with all of its messiness, will be a catalyst to get us there.
© 2016 Timothy Moody