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Powerlessness is a Crisis of Self-Worth

There is a scene in the famous series, “Mad Men,” where Don Draper and Roger Sterling are sitting in Don’s office having a drink. Don is an advertising genius and ad man. Roger inherited the agency from his father, and though plenty smart, he sort of just provides advice and insights to the rest of the staff. He and Don are talking about the firm and the problems they are facing with both old and new clients. As Don pours them a drink, they have this exchange:

Roger: I bet daily friendship with that bottle attracts more people to advertising than any salary you can dream of.
Don: It's the way I got in.
Roger: So enjoy it.
Don: I'm doin' my best here.
Roger: No, you're not. You don't know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it's good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink because it's what men do.
Don: What about shaky hands, I see a lot of that with you boys?
Roger: No joke. But your kind with your gloomy thoughts and your worries, you're all busy licking some imaginary wound.
Don: Not all imaginary.
Roger: Yeah, boo hoo.
Don: Maybe I'm not as comfortable being powerless as you are.

Draper is a guy drowning in powerlessness. Outwardly, he seems to have it all. Urbane. Handsome. Abundantly confident. Brilliantly creative. A winner. People are drawn to his manliness, his magnetism. But inside, he is tormented with self-doubt and self-loathing from the moral weight of his pseudo self. He carries a damning secret. Behind his shining persona his excessive drinking and philandering help suppress what he believes about himself, that he is a shameless counterfeit. Most of the time he keeps those thoughts at bay, unwilling to actually deal with his dishonesty, his lack of any real authenticity. But now and then, mainly from his own irresponsible behavior, those thoughts flare and burn, and in his deepest self he agonizes.

Powerlessness is a crisis of self-worth. If you have ever been in serious financial loss or want then you know the feeling. If you have gone through a nasty divorce pulled by primal forces of anger and resentment, of jealousy and pride, of having to deal with broken hearts and damaged lives because of your decision, then you’ve been there. If you have experienced a dying loved one, still full of life but broken by some random act of fate, or left shattered by the speeding ravages of a fatal disease, then you have known powerlessness. If you have come out of some form of personal abuse known only to a few, or perhaps only to you, then you know what it is to feel helpless.

It comes to all of us at various times in our lives under all sorts of circumstances. And it can devastate us, break us, or challenge us to find a way out of it.

Don Draper fought his powerlessness through his work, by turning to his ability to create beautiful copy, by using his insights into himself and others, often people he had hurt or used or manipulated, to achieve advertising ideas that dazzled clients and brought the envy of his colleagues. In his world of ad designs, slogans, tag lines, and client negotiations, he found power. But none of that was enough. The real Don remained within clamoring to be known.

We all tend to fall into the same routines of escape. We hide our powerlessness in numbing addictions, in feckless urges and impulses, by accumulating large earnings, by beating out the other guy before he beats us, by stepping over or on people if necessary. We do it by pretending to be someone we aren’t, by flashing beautiful smiles and presenting a fit body, well dressed and trendy. We do it with selfishness, by using people, by making up lies about our self that sound convincing, that we think will impress and remove the truth we actually know and live with. But deep down, we feel the hollowness of it all.

When Draper was stripped of his phoniness, when he allowed his true self to be exposed, when he stopped the lying and became real, his powerlessness ended. When he saw just how tragic his supposedly great life had been, tragic because of his fears of being exposed, fears of his own humanity, he found the courage to accept himself and start over.

It happens that way for all of us. When we get to the root of what keeps us from authenticity, from what has us stuck in our fears about ourselves, from the reality of our own humanity, and we finally brave exposure and truth; then we can walk into the light unafraid of being known.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy Moody

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