Sunday, 1 August 2010

Living the Lie

I have recently become hooked on "Mad Men". If you have not watched this, make time to do so. It is fabulous drama; sexy, complex, intriguing and honest. The story revolves around a 1960's Madison Avenue advertising agency and the work and lives of its key personnel. I will not be giving too much away for those who have yet to become hooked if I write about the irony rich plot that surrounds the key character Don Draper - ad executive, husband, father and philanderer.

As the story unfolds, Don, we discover has changed his name, disavowed his past and reinvented himself. I am only part way through the first season so I cannot reveal whether he is found out or exposed and the ramifications if so. However, in one of the early episodes he is challenged by some Greenwich Village pot-smoking arty types about his career as an ad man - propagating lies to the public. Don is defensive. People want to be told what to do, he rails, and what choices to make. He barely responds to the accusation that he is selling lies. He has previously described advertising as the promotion of happiness and the good life.  Don is a cynic. He is lost and he is unhappy. Yet, outwardly he is handsome, exciting, mysterious and brilliant. Gorgeous wife and kids, awards for his work, an entourage of young execs who hang on his every word, even a boss who seems on the one hand desperate to impress him and slightly in awe of him while on the other, eager to compete with him and defeat him.

Don is a great character. I am not sure I like him. He is fundamentally flawed and scarred. I am not sure he is capable of loving anyone - apart from his children (he vows never to lie to his son!) - but he goes through the motions.

The complexity of Don is symbolic of the complexity of the time. McCarthyism just behind them, Vietnam just ahead. Kennedy yet to be elected. Contraception and pyschotherapy, divorce and career women becoming less taboo. There is plenty of misogyny, anti-Semitism and amorality confronting the viewer. It gets under the skin. I find myself thinking about it a lot.

Despite its subject matter and its context and setting it is easy to relate to some of the themes and emotions in Mad Men. Perhaps this is the secret of its popularity and appeal.

The housewives, told to be happy with all their material needs met - frozen food for goodness sake! - lost in their bedroom suburbs of New York State.

The executives and account managers vying for success, a seat at the table, promotions, glamour, pay rises. Eaten up with jealousy at the success of one of their number in publishing a short story. Conducting affairs with - well - anyone, really.

It is modern and shocking and at the same time - of another, far away time - and shocking. And ironically, given the lies its characters live and believe, it is brutally honest and devastatingly subtle and intelligent too.

I won't give you chapter and verse on all the scenarios - it will spoil it for all of you. Suffice to say, there are lies and duplicity everywhere. 

At its heart it is a timeless tale of the quest for material wellbeing. Yet the foundations of the characters and their lives are built not on bedrock, not on the backbone of America, or even the "American dream", so propagandised in those post Second World War years, but on the shifting sands of lies and pretence.

If you had the chance to take on a new identity and transform your life, what would you do? Become anyone you want? Laugh? Be paralysed by fear or choice? Would you do anything? How bad would things need to be in order to leave it all behind and start afresh? How good would the "new" life have to be to warrant it?

It's not something one often considers. An occasional night out with the girls or a good (tv) story usually suffices, no?

Clearly, we all find and utilise the lies and delusions we need in order to get through the hard times, or perhaps to achieve the "good" times. We tell ourselves that we didn't really want x, y or z, anyway. We convince ourselves and others that we actually do like a, b or c; a, b or c being something we seem to have in abundance (e.g. bad skin, grey hair, enemies at the school gate). These falsehoods often serve us well. They are good for us. They let us go on. They make us human and keep us grounded in reality.

But sometimes our lies are like tumours, eating us up from the inside out. Or they amount to layers of straw behind which we cower, ever fearful of discovery. 

When I trained to become an executive coach I underwent several hours of coaching. I should not say "underwent" - as one might refer to root canal or a colonoscopy. Rather, I benefited from several hours of coaching at the hands of my trainers and peers. The idea being that we all practised on one another. The learning was amazing - practical and experiential - the best kind. First, I discovered that I am a fantastic client (delightfully open, highly communicative and exceedingly willing to talk about myself). But second, and even more importantly, I discovered that when I was honest and clear about my hopes and aspirations it was virtually impossible to shut down the creative energy and flow that followed. 

And I had thought I was honest and clear before that!

Perhaps it was the fact I was articulating my ideas to a dispassionate and unconnected person, or the fact that I had committed to taking a journey of sorts or the fact that the course was costing so much that I would have been crazy not to have made some sort of transformation. But whether you call it "finding your voice" or "taking off the blinkers" or accepting oneself, the personal truths were given time and space to become my reality. 

Similarly, people tell me how the day they realise they are living their own life and not that of their father or mother - and often it is not something that happens "one day" but over many, many difficult and sometimes painful days and years, they start to live authentically and honestly. 

And so Don Draper and people of his ilk, with their lies and obfuscation, constructs and stories fascinate me. These are not little white lies, but massive breaches of trust and confidence. How does one deal in duplicity, day in and day out, on a large scale? What makes it necessary in the first place? I doubt that the authenticity I refer to would be much use to Don - at least not in the first season of the show. 

Yet, the hardest thing is not being authentic - that is easy. The hardest part is deciding to be. The challenge is letting go of the past, the expectations we and others place on us and ceasing to play the same old part in the same old drama. The hardest part is working out which lies are intrinsically useful or valuable and which are self-destructive or self-limiting.

I used to joke with friends about my ill-gotten time as a tax lawyer - how my heart was not in it - how I was "livin' a lie". Thankfully it did not permeate the rest of my life. Thankfully I could see it and laugh at it and eventually deal with it.

Woe is she that lives the lie and believes it.

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