Don Draper: Spiritual Director?

Few of us think or live like Don Draper from “Mad Men.” You won’t find me hiding behind my office door drinking whiskey, concealing secret affairs or unseemly behavior. My office doesn’t even have a door. Seeing the way Don treats certain people you might call him heartless. But there’s something about Don Draper that shows he’s truly in touch with the human heart.

In the third episode of season five, Don and his colleague Harry are backstage at a Rolling Stones concert waiting to meet the band’s manager about an advertising deal. While waiting, Don begins speaking to a young female fan:

Don: So what do you like so much about the Rolling Stones?
Girl: Why don’t you get me backstage and you’ll see.
Don: What do you feel when you hear them?

Don knows how important it is to tap into human feelings. When he’s pitching a campaign to a client he chooses his words with great care. He speaks to the feelings their product creates in the lives of consumers. In season one Don is pitching to Kodak a campaign for their Carousel slide projector. He first speaks about an old colleague named Teddie who told him that one of the most important secrets of advertising is that the public has a sentimental and nostalgic bond with the product. As he advances through slides of family photos, Don takes his client on a journey of the heart. “Teddie told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound’. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. […] It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

Paying attention to feelings

In the spiritual life, feelings are important indicators of where we are in God’s plan for our lives. Don Draper may make a good spiritual director. When we can pause, notice, and name our feelings — even the ones tied to memories — we are actually taking a moment to be with God. Emotions aren’t just messy chemicals that are a result of our evolution. Feelings exist as a way to move below our mindless everyday superficiality. Those twinges of the heart tell us something about ourselves. And since God gave us the ability to feel and emote, God can use them to guide us. When my heart breaks I can better see what’s deeply important to me. When I am in exuberant joy I can more clearly see the gifts in my life. When I am at peace I can make a decision more prudently.

Feelings can mislead, yes. But if you pay close attention to them day after day, situation after situation, you’ll soon discover yourself more and in turn discover God. Then, the most logical path might not necessarily be the right one. The Examen prayer is a good way to pay attention to our feelings by reflecting on the happenings of our day just before bed. My spiritual director likes to emphasize the importance of feelings in the Examen, and how it’s not just reason that guides us. He gave me a great real-world example about feelings, one that was very Don Draper. Let’s say you’re trying to decide between purchasing a Droid and an iPhone. The Droid has many models to choose from, more carriers, and an open-source OS with endless customization options. The iPhone has fewer options. Maybe the Droid is the logical choice when you lay the pros and cons side by side. But the iPhone is sexy, it’s simple, it’s got style and it just … feels right. The point: Even when buying a product, feelings are important. Apple knows that. So does Don Draper. Oftentimes our feelings shed more light on the truth than solely “thinking through” something.

Discerning feelings

Logic and feelings, both gifts from God, work together as tools for discernment. Both can guide; both can mislead. They tug in many directions but both logic and feelings offer a chance for us to slow down our rush and delve deep into the human condition, one that puts us in touch with the stuff meaning comes from. Sadly, we tend to either go with one extreme or the other. Don Draper knew that a product had to have practicality to it but that it also had to touch one’s heart. Feelings can be practical, too.

What Pedro Arrupe, SJ, said about love can be said about proper discernment of feelings: It can be practical. “It will decide … how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.”

When I think of Don Draper I now see him as a kind of spiritual director in training. He’s got a ways to go (for sure), but I think he’s got some important questions up his sleeve to further probe the hearts of his directees. Don’s directees are consumers. And like a good spiritual director he’s not out to put feelings into them; he’s there to draw out the feelings that already exist — and then dive into them. Though God or spirituality is not some “product,” we need to see what feelings our relationship with God draws out of us. It’s where practicality meets the heart. Don wants to know everything that Pedro Arrupe said about love: What charges you with delight? What amazes you? What makes you cry or gives hope? And most importantly, how do you feel?