Can We Escape Expectations?


The American Movie Channel’s series Madmen is a fascinating glimpse at a slice of American culture. Set in the early 1960’s, it focuses on the professional and personal lives of New York advertising executives. Seeing their lives unfold through a haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke, we watch a train wreck in slow motion as the accumulation of heavy drinking and slippery morals leads the main characters in an ever descending spiral of sex without intimacy, success without purpose and life without meaning.

In one episode from season four, a character interacting with executive Don Draper explains how her study of psychology has freed her: she now realizes that everything comes down to “what I want versus what is expected of me.” This makes perfect sense to Don, who has already been quite successful in suppressing what remnants of conscience might be operating within him. He seems intrigued by the simplicity of the statement – and no doubt by its allure. The underlying philosophy predates the 60’s, of course, and it is still going strong today. The modern version no doubt adds the standard caveat “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone,” as if we can actually know the long term effects that immoral conduct will have on ourselves or other people.

But that’s not my point. What struck me, instead, was what this philosophy is seeking to escape. What is it that presses down upon us, demanding our attention and causing feelings of guilt when we don’t live up to expectations. What is the source of these expectations and why are these expectations so difficult for people – of all cultures through all time apparently – to escape? After all, as the show depicts, most people seem to need help trying to make good their escape into the selfish pursuit of self-interest, leaning on crutches like alcohol, drugs or other addictive behaviors to distract them or to numb the pain. Could it be that, as Christianity teaches, these expectations are in fact a message that comes to us from an intelligent source? Could it be that the God who made us has left within us a set of rules that, try as we might, keep pointing us back to Him? That we depart from at our peril?

CS Lewis makes this argument quite effectively in Mere Christianity. His review of culture and history convinced him, a former atheist, that there are not multiple moralities throughout time and place, but one general one that is apparent in nature. While different cultures may disagree on the specifics, many commonalities persist. For example, running away in battle has never been admired and double-crossing a person who had been kind is never a cause for pride. While some cultures allowed for multiple wives, all agree that a man cannot simply have any woman that he wants. Now it is true that people break these rules all the time. But it is also true that they inevitably develop feelings of guilt when they do. Despite the best efforts to justify behavior, or to shift blame away from themselves, guilty people generally feel increasing torment by their guilt. This is one reason why so many criminals confess their crimes, even though doing so may be against their own best interest. As Madmen unfolds, it is apparent that Don, and the others, need a new philosophy. But a worldview that helps them ignore their guilty knowledge – that lets them focus on what they want rather than what is expected of them – is not it.

No, what they need is to get in touch with the true source of knowledge and of goodness, and to start to find out what He rightly expects of them. 

Posted by Al Serrato

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