The prodigal son, Don Draper and happiness

The prodigal son, Don Draper and happiness

Disclaimer: Don’t read this if you haven’t watched “Mad Men” or if you want to avoid spoilers (unless you have memory- loss issues, that is).

The greatest stories do not directly focus on the internal motivators of personal politics, philosophy or religion that lay behind the external workings of people and society. The greatest stories focus on a man and his inner struggle as these unavoidable demons rear their heads during man’s quest for true happiness “” the human condition.

Whether he was the Lord, a lunatic or a liar, Jesus of Nazareth was undoubtedly a masterful storyteller. His most well-known parable is that of the prodigal son. If you ask any churched person, they’ll give you the prototypical Sunday school description “” a delusional adolescent follows a narrative arc that is very familiar “” self-centeredness and lust, turning to desperation and loneliness, finishing with a remorseful attitude that allows him the peace and love he always craved but never deserved.  It’s a classic case of redemption, and it sticks with you because the protagonist finds that mysterious, fleeting “it” everyone in the real world wants, but doesn’t seem to understand. The prodigal son simply needed to be fully confronted by his own brokenness and inadequacy in order to obtain it.

Modern protagonists bear a stark resemblance to the prodigal. Jon Hamm’s portrayal of Don Draper, the infamous main character in the award-winning TV show “Mad Men,”  is one example of this uncanny literary phenomenon (yes, “Mad Men” is literature). Don’s early life, viewed in flashbacks, was spent as an impoverished, unloved child in a whorehouse “” a purposefully despondent situation. In a fashion symbolic of the human tendency to play with personal identity, Don erases this childhood during the Korean War when he steals the name of a fellow soldier he accidentally killed. He uses this new, pure identity and in-depth knowledge of the human condition to become an acclaimed ad creator. His meteoric rise is fueled by a commitment to achievement. Contrary to his associates, the excessive money, fame, alcohol and womanizing exist secondary to what Don is seeking more of: true happiness.

This is the underlying similarity Don and the prodigal son share “” a desire for more, for the indescribable true happiness. Frankly, it’s the underlying similarity that unites all of humanity. However, this desire manifests itself in a variety of ways based on outer strings we rarely acknowledge “” primarily, the setting in which our existence occurs, which predestines our environment and, therefore, our lifestyle. We blindly cling to conventions that have been shaped by entities beyond our control over centuries; whether or not these conventions have truth within them is rarely relevant to the day-to-day affairs with which we consume ourselves.

Within our westernized societal convention, an aspiration to defeat expectations has steadily replaced any sort of aspiration for truth. Expectations are what fuel our engine, and they are twofold “” the expectations we have for ourselves, and the expectations others have for us. If we meet these expectations, which we base on what ads, movies, politicians, musicians make seem so real, and so readily within our grasp “” then the desire for this “it,” this true happiness, will finally be satisfied. In essence, we have become slaves to expectations. If what binds Don and the prodigal son is true happiness, the endings of their respective stories reveal the big difference “” the answer to their longings are radically different, despite the practically identical questions they are asking.

The prodigal son’s expectations were not being met at his father’s house. He felt there was more to be experienced “” more to have. In a fit of solipsism, the prodigal son demanded his share of the estate from the father (obviously, this is before his father is dead, when the son would have received his share anyway: to demand it beforehand was a slap in the face). He essentially chose money and the pursuit of more, a fulfillment to his expectations, over his father’s love. The prodigal son predictably squandered his inheritance, and probably experienced quite a few highs during the squandering “” but the momentary highs lead to a sullen, lasting low. Depression sunk in, and nothingness delegated the prodigal son to desiring nothing more than to eat with the pigs. His expectations had chewed him up, had their way, and spat him back out, no more valuable in his own eyes then his bovine brothers. In the end, the prodigal son returned home seeking refuge, expecting nothing more than to be a servant.

Finally, when the prodigal son’s expectations had been decimated completely and his desires eviscerated by lust, he found what he had been looking for all along. Despite being betrayed, when the father saw his despicable son stumbling up the path home, he sprinted straight to him (something a man of his stature in this time would never have done) and embraced him. A party was thrown in his son’s honor despite his ineptitude. Despite the prodigal son expecting nothing and desiring no more then that which a servant receives, he was given the seat of honor at the table “” his desire for more was finally quenched when his expectations had disappeared.

Donald Draper’s story, too, is wrapped in an insatiable need for more based on expectations. The seven gripping seasons follow the ups and downs as Don bounces from wife to wife,  from hash to LSD to more liquor and from career to retirement. Through it all, Don works to meet his personal expectations while crafting an exterior that meets the expectations of his contemporaries. The struggle crests towards the end of the seventh season when his ad agency, SCDP, a personal project and source of great pride, is swallowed by the mammoth firm called McCann; ironically, McCann himself tells Don that SCDP is dying and going to advertising heaven.

In his first meeting, Don, no longer the top dog but merely rather another genius among geniuses, aimlessly walks out and embarks on a goalless road trip. At the end of the trip, Don finds himself more lost than ever before, at a hippie retreat in California. In a fascinating scene Don sits in on a sort of sharing circle. A balding, married office man describes a life where “I should be happier,” “I sit down at dinner and my wife and kid don’t look up,” and “I know people walk by and don’t see me.” Through this pitiful explanation of the human condition, Don doesn’t look up. What triggers his attention “” his empathy “” is the line “It’s like no one cares when I’m gone.” People are so tuned into their own version of reality that they barely know that everyone else suffers from the same human condition. So, like Don, we turn to drugs, objectify each other’s bodies and minds, and seek identity in work, to find true happiness, defeating expectations and fulfilling that desire.

What makes these stories different? Don’s reaction when he hears that line that he recognizes plagues his own soul. He gets up and hugs the balding middle-aged man. He empathizes with him, realizing that deep down they are the same. Empathy is the solution. After sifting through other secondary characters in their own worlds, seeking happiness, you see Don “” doing yoga on the coast of California. The scene cuts to the most famous commercial of all time, implying that Don returned to McCann and created it: a Coca-Cola ad where peoples of the world are seen singing, together, at peace with their position in life “” universal empathy in the face of an unforgiving, imperfect world. It seems Don has figured it out. You must sacrifice your expectations in order to be at peace, and empathy is the fire that will burn expectations. Cut out self-fulfillment. Be empathetic.

The Coca-Cola ad paints a beautiful picture of a world where the desire to fulfill expectations is vanquished by universal empathy, and it reflects the message people today attempt to spread in a time with terrible poverty, racial and cultural divides and general emptiness. The conclusion of “Mad Men,” the ad’s actual creators, and empathy warriors all have a very idealistic view of people if they believe such a world is within reach. It’s a nice sentiment, but is it real?

Jesus, whatever you make of the man, had a different understanding of the human condition. In his eyes, there was someone who cared when you were gone “” someone waiting for you with open arms “” God the Father. Empathy has its place in this world, yes. But it is not the key. Cutting out the self in the hope for the Father’s love is they key. In one story, the expectations of this world are sacrificed due to brokenness and replaced with desire-free empathy. In the other story the expectations are sacrificed and replaced with the father, who fulfills the desire. One quenches the desire for more, the other requires mass self-sacrifice that humanity has shown no previous aptitude for. I’m not convinced true happiness can be achieved without a fulfillment of the desire for more, and I side with atheist-turned-Christ-follower C.S. Lewis, who said, “If we find ourselves with a desire this world cannot satisfy, the most logical explanation is that we were made for another world.”