The ultimate question for each of us . . . “Do I want—really want, from the depths of my being, not simply in sporadic moments of high religious exaltation—the God who makes sense of my life and my desires, or some God-substitute, some idol?” -ANTHONY MEREDITH
Sometimes when people get what they want they realize how limited their goals were. -Joan from Mad Men
“So tell me what you want, what you really really want” -Spice Girls
Almost 100 years ago, the English author G.K. Chesterton came to America for the first time. And as he travelled through this country he made some incredibly profound observations about the blossoming American culture, but my favorite one is called “A Meditation on Broadway”
As he walked along the New York streets, and saw the neon lights flashing advertisements it dawned on Chesterton that the person who would really love this would be a poor, rural villager from a developing part of the world. If this person was suddenly whisked away to New York, they would be overwhelmed with wonder… as long as they didn’t know how to read English.
Festivals of Fake
Chesterton said it would seem to this peasant that he had stumbled upon a paradise on earth as long as they never ate from the Tree of Knowledge that was the A-B-C’s
Because, when this poor peasant came to New York, he would immediately believe that he had stumbled into a giant festival of some kind. Seeing all the symbols and the artificial lights blazing, the peasant’s soul would sore as he tried to understand what great celebration he had happened upon.
He might assume, if he knew anything about America, that these flashing lights said something like “Government for the people and by the people” or “Life, Liberty, Justice” but if he ever had the misfortune of learning English he would be extremely disappointed to learn that the fire in the sky was just trying to sell him sugar water.
Here’s how Chesterton puts it:
It is not true to say that the peasant has never seen such things before. The truth is that he has seen them on a much smaller scale, but for a much larger purpose…the real case against modern society [all the advertisements] is not that it is vulgar, but rather that it is not popular…the [peasant belongs to] the remnant of a real human tradition of symbolising real historic ideals by the sacramental mystery of fire… The new illumination does not stand for any national ideal at all… it does not come from any popular enthusiasm… That is where it differs from the narrowest national Protestantism…. Mobs have risen against the Pope; no mobs are likely to rise in defence of [Pepsi]. Many a poor crazy man has died saying, ‘To Hell with the Pope’; it is doubtful whether any man will ever, with his last breath, say the ecstatic words, ‘Try [Wrigley’s] Chewing Gum.’ These modern legends are imposed upon us by a mercantile minority, and we are merely passive to the suggestion. The hypnotist of high finance or big business merely writes his commands in heaven with a finger of fire.
For the past several years, I’ve been enchanted with writers like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, primarily because they were writing when the world was still enchanted, and they were watching the levers that were being pulled to dis-enchant it.
This is the same reason that I have loved the show Mad Men. The show that centers around the genius and misery of the first advertisement agencies. These people from the 60’s who became known as the “inventors of want”
A few weeks ago, there was a painful scene in Mad Men where Don Draper is wrestling with his existence. He’s talking to a co-worker about what his dreams for the future are, what he wants his life to be about. And his friend tells him that he’d love to land an oil company or a pharmaceutical.
“Bigger accounts? That’s your greatest desire?”
So Don goes to one of his copy writers and asks her what she really wants. She tells him “to be the first female creative director.” He asks “What then?” She says “I want to land a very big account.” He asks “What then?” She says, “I want to invent a catchphrase.”
Don “So you want to be famous? What then?”
And that’s when Peggy storms out of the room, because what she wanted wasn’t worth her life, and both of them knew it.
What do you Want?
There’s a scene in Mark 10, much like this episode of Mad Men, where Jesus asks a few different people what they want. One is a pair of power-hungry brothers and they immediately respond, “We want to sit at your right and left when you become King.”
And Jesus tells them no. He tells them he can’t give them what they want, because they really don’t want it. At his right and left will be crosses, and these are people who don’t know the beauty of the Cross yet.
But then Jesus immediately bumps into a blind man, a man who has probably had one thing on his mind his entire life. The desire to see. He knows what is absent from his life, and he’d give anything to get it. And when Jesus asks him the question he doesn’t miss a beat, “I want to see”
And Jesus gives him his sight.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that the most powerful thing we can do is sit alone with God and honestly answer this question “What do you really want?”
Not what people tell you to want, but what you really, really want. Because I’m convinced most of us are walking around without any idea of the answer to that question. We’ve got glib answers that were created for us by people who make a lot of money connecting our deepest desires to crappy products, and our truest desires end up buried under a pile of junk.
This is the beauty of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner is shining a light on this one truth that we’d rather forget because change is just too hard. The people who are telling us what we should want, the ones who make the big bucks to manipulate our desires, those people are just as lost as anyone.
Again, I like how Chesterton says it:
Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for. Every man has a house somewhere in the elaborate cosmos; his house waits for him waist deep in slow Norfolk rivers or sunning itself upon Sussex downs. Man has always been looking for that home which is the subject matter of this book. But in the bleak and blinding hail of skepticism to which he has been now so long subjected, he has begun for the first time to be chilled, not merely in his hopes, but in his desires. For the first time in history he begins really to doubt the object of his wanderings on the earth. He has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address.
I’m willing to wager my life that buried underneath all the superficial brands connections and capitalist spin you have a heart for something bigger. Maybe it’s to be connected to community, or to know and give a deep love, or to give your life for a cause bigger than yourself or to know what it feels like to be wanted. But behind it all I believe is the tug of the heart’s greatest desire to know and be known by God.
In the words of Chesterton “we want to go home.”
Or in the words of Don Draper
“We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”