I love Donald Draper, even if he makes me cringe.
He’s the star ad exec in the TV series Mad Men, and season five premiers this Sunday night. Donald Draper is a mystery. He is the picture of 1950s perfection—“has it all”—and yet his life is wildly out of control. It always seems that his destructive choices will finally wipe out his “good life,” but somehow he pulls it together, shaves, puts on a starched white shirt and shows up at the office.
The heart of Donald Draper’s trouble is—he’s not Donald Draper. He’s Richard Whitman, a young man from poor, coal country Pennsylvania, who ends up on the battlefields of the Korean War. When his commanding officer is killed, Dick Whitman switches dog tags—he walks away with the identity of Don Draper and lets the Army declare Dick Whitman dead.
He manages to land a job at Sterling Cooper, an ad agency in New York, and soon rises to become the firm’s rainmaker. But he is haunted by his past. He strikes an elegant pose, but underneath is the poor kid from coal country.
Thomas Merton said that within every man and woman is a “false self” and a “true self.” Don Draper is the best contemporary illustration I know of this divide. The false self, Merton said, is the one we create and present to the world, because we don’t trust who we really are. You learn early in life that to be popular or successful, to be favored by the gods of this world, you need to look the part. Yet you peer inside and see something that’s not going to cut the muster; it’s not good enough. So you learn to dress up another version of yourself and present that to the world for its approval. The great sadness is that, in time, you believe this made-up self is the real you. You forget that other, original self.
Don Draper is a fascinating character because his grand-scale identity sham is just like our little version. You may not have stolen someone’s dog tags, but you’ve lived a life that isn’t really you. You’ve felt the pressure to be somebody else, so that the system would approve of you, give you a promotion, name you a success, call you beautiful or bright and clever, pay you well. You ended up doing a lot of things that weren’t what you loved, that didn’t come from your heart. In Merton’s terms, you lived in your false self.
Welcome to the human race. It’s what we all do. Usually for 40 or 50 years until that false self inevitably implodes and we are left with “nothing” but a calm and quiet self that has been patiently waiting, hidden within. It is the original you, the one God created at your birth. In fact it is your God-self.
One of the questions for season five is, will Don Draper finally reveal his true identity? Happy watching (if you’re a Mad Men devotee like me). No matter what creator Matthew Weiner writes into his plot, the great Creator has already written the script for you and me.