I don’t watch much TV, but I have seen every episode of Mad Men. I always found that it had a fascinating take on human psychology.
Set in the 1960s, on Madison Avenue in New York, it revolves around the rise and fall of the prestigious advertising agency Sterling Cooper. The main protagonist is Don Draper, a firm Partner and Creative Director.
Don has many secrets — about his identity, his infidelities, his family. He’s also a brilliant and charming and, sometimes, ruthless executive. He knows how to get results, and while not always liked, he is well-respected by everyone from his subordinates to his competitors.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the show is how little it’s driven by plot. Most of the time, it’s not exciting at all. It’s the characters— their decisions, their complexity — that really shape the narrative. Don, especially, reminds me of someone out of a Dostoevsky novel.
Throughout the seasons, we see his faults and his gifts; we are exposed to his anger and his detachment; we feel the effects of his lies, and we are moved by the result of his thoughtfulness. It’s an exploration of an evolving self, but maybe more importantly, it’s a mosaic of interrelated lives.
A central relationship in the show is one between Don and Peggy Olson. She’s initially hired as his secretary, but with time, he takes note of her work ethic and her creativity, and she becomes the first female Copywriter at the firm since the Second World War. By the end, it’s a relationship of peers, and he respects her as an executive in her own right.
There is a scene between them in the second season, though, that I suspect captures part of what makes the whole show so real and so compelling.
At the end of the first season, Peggy gives birth to a baby after a brief affair with a coworker. It’s not a child she wants. In her situation, living in the time she did, raising it alone, out of wedlock, isn’t the ideal option. But she has to make a choice, and we are left wondering what that is.
In season two, set about a year after the end of the first, we learn that she has just returned to work. In her absence, her family made up a false story to cover for her, but we don’t see what happened in that time until a flashback of a scene when Don, who doesn’t believe the story, goes to find out.
“Is that you?” she asks, waking up in a hospital bed. “Are you really there?”
“Yes, I am,” Don says.
“What are you doing here?”
“You got a promotion and you disappeared. Your Christmas present is sitting on your desk. I called your house. Your roommate gave me your mother’s number.”
“Oh god.” Peggy sits up.
“Your mother told me you were quarantined. TB. I guess that was supposed to lessen my concern.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do they want you to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.” Don looks right into her eyes. “Do it. Do whatever they say.”
Peggy doesn’t respond.
“Peggy, listen to me,” he continues, “get out of here and move forward. This never happened.”
After a pause, he says, “It will shock you how much this never happened.”
With that, the scene closes. For the next six seasons, we never hear another meaningful word about the whole incident.
The journalist Joan Didion begins her collection of essays, The White Album, with a basic truth: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
It’s quite a statement, both simple and profound at the same time. We live in an uncertain world, a messy world, and we create stable, easy narratives to help us make sense of it. They provide a grounding in a reality that doesn’t come with a universal foundation for us to stand on.
If we didn’t have this, our lives wouldn’t make sense. Our memories would be meaningless. There would be no order. We would, if we weren’t prepared for it, land ourselves in a mental purgatory, a world where sense and nonsense are indistinguishable enough to smother our existence with fear.
It’s important to note, though, that these stories, while useful, are not true. They are simplified models that we create to understand the world. Just because we have decided to establish a cause and an effect between a series of events doesn’t mean that these relationships concretely exist in the real world. In fact, most of them don’t — at least not in the way that we think.
This is what we call the narrative fallacy. Our brain can’t help but look at a series of facts — facts that often have incredibly complex cause and effect relationships — without forcing a simple, logical link between them. As a result, we mistakenly assign meaning where there is none. Or as Joan Didion eloquently expresses later in her essay:
“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
There is a clear danger in doing this. The more our stories diverge away from the reality at hand, the more likely we are to land ourselves in situations that are going to cause some sort of a conflict. The world, ultimately, doesn’t care for our thoughts and feelings, and it’s not afraid to punish us if we refuse to get out of its way.
But, less clearly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a real risk of creating meaning in a story that is not only false, but especially, one that confines our view of ourselves into such a narrow box that we limit the possibilities we have in front of us. If the narrative we paint is rigid, with already-frozen links, then the path ahead becomes similarly rigid.
If you think of yourself as someone who has been dealt a uniquely unfair hand, the chances are that this is the story that will guide your future, too. If you see suffering and hardship as the common threads that connect the events in your life, it’s likely that future events will be bound by a similar interpretation, whether or not they objectively should be.
We all live with an identity, fueled by a stream of memories, that is weaved together to create its own imaginary character, living in its own movie.
Except, life isn’t a movie. Treating it like one only leads to undue pain.
When I first made sense of that scene between Don and Peggy, I was in awe at its boldness, of course, but I was also slightly uneasy.
As far as my memory goes, we don’t get told in any clear terms what happened to that baby. Even so, surely it couldn’t have been as easy as getting rid of it and then just forgetting that this entire episode took place, could it?
A mother has a biological bond with a newborn. Completely tearing that bond apart without any visible sign of distress sounds a lot like an unhealthy kind of psychological repression. In fact, given that Peggy spent around a year away from work after that birth suggests that she would fit into a category of people who may not let something like that go too easily.
Maybe they got it wrong, and maybe that just isn’t how things work in life.
Yet, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that they actually got it perfectly right. Making the issue with the baby a storyline would have been the normal thing to do, the thing that would have been real for most people in the world. But these characters were different, and Peggy was different, and while how she dealt with it may be less common, it’s no less real.
She had time to face the pain. She was paralyzed by the situation, presumably for months, until Don came by to talk to her. She realized the gravity of her circumstance, and she even hid out of shame and fear.
At some point, however, with a helping hand, she also realized that just as she could assign meaning to a situation like that, with time, she could also strip that meaning away and move her life in a better direction. The initial story she told herself wasn’t as linear as she thought, nor did it need to be.
The truth is that the universe — and our tiny world in it — is a chaotic mess. We couldn’t fully wrap our head around it even if we tried. Atoms collide, stars explode, and eventually, somewhere along an infinite chain of causes and effects, something occurs that disturbs our life in an unseemly way.
It’s natural to take this personally; it’s even more natural to want this to mean something; and it’s perhaps most natural of all to define yourself by a story that gives it all some explanatory power.
Much of this makes sense, and it can even be useful. But, at some point, you have to realize that an event is just an event and fact is just a fact, and just as they can exist in union with each other, they can also exist independently. And in reality, most of them do, and it’s okay to treat them like that.
Sometimes, the awful pain you dealt with and the struggle you endured isn’t a profound lesson, nor is it a thing that should define your identity. It’s just a vague memory of an event and then a feeling, and it’s in the past, and that’s it.
This is easier said than done, and for some people, it’s not easy at all. But it’s also not impossible. In fact, it’s precisely the thing that holds most people back from getting to where they want to go as opposed to being in stuck in a ditch shaped by the outline of the narrative they define their life by.
There is a whole world of potential in front of us, and there is an infinite number of probability streams that lead to a decent future. The only way to tap into this, however, is to escape our own self-imposed prisons.
Humans are resilient; you are resilient. We don’t need a story to tie us down.
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