While in college in the late 1950’s, I was heavily influenced by three books and a play that were the topic of many late-night conversations in my fraternity house. The three books, all written in the early 1950’s, criticized the pressure corporations placed on employees to “conform” to the perceived corporate culture of the time. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson, The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman and The Organization Man by William H. Whyte lamented the tragic effects of this conformity. “‘Gray Flannel Suit’ is the story of a not-so-remarkable family—Tom Rath, his wife Betsy, and their three young children—living in Westport, Conn., in 1953 and struggling with the unremarkable demands of life; quarreling, fussing, fretting, trying to get ahead and wondering what ‘getting ahead’ means and whether it is worth it. At the same time, he is hoping to maintain some sense of principles and decency, all the while getting the car repaired and the clothes washed.”
“This is a far different family, differently presented, from that in Richard Yates’ ‘Revolutionary Road,’ published six years later, but the same suffocating, un-nameable feeling of being trapped suffuses both. Dreams have been thwarted.” Tom Rath “is vaguely dissatisfied with his job and especially its pay. He seethes that the world expects him to run ceaselessly like a squirrel in a cage to provide his family with a decent living.” In his wife Betsy’s words, life in their house was “tense and frantic.”
In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman we find Willy Loman, “a man selling his soul and eventually his life to the false values of materialist America.” I remember discussions fifty years ago with several of my friends who would soon enter the corporate environment portrayed by these author’s and feeling somewhat smug that I would avoid “selling out” by becoming a school teacher. I could not be seduced into conformity by mere material comforts nor enticed into what these authors had me believing was a mindless and robotic existence. I entered a dysfunctional institution of my own, however.
In all of these books and the play, we have a theme that flows from the existential pain of Americans that is as present today as it was a half-century ago—but not for the reasons that the author’s have posited. At the end of Miller’s play Willy Loman’s wife cries out, “Attention must be paid.” Her husband had been “discarded” by a callous and indifferent “capitalism.” From a place of deep suffering she and all of the characters in the works above were in fact seeking an escape from illusion. This illusion had mesmerized not only the authors who were seeking to understand an aspect of the American experience, but all of the Americans living at that time whether employed by corporate America or cutting wheat in Montana. This same illusion is alive and well in America today, unchanged and invisible to most of us.
Our dilemma in America as we begin a new century brings to mind the prisoners in Plato’s cave. They seemed to find the illusionary shadows on the cave wall more real than the outside world. What is the nature of reality? That is the question that remains unanswered by philosophers and artists from Plato to Miller. And after more than 2,500 years of searching for a profound answer to that question, time may be running out. We must become more divergent and creative in our thinking and more open to our inner, intuitive wisdom to ever hope to discover the origin of the human dissatisfaction with life.
We must also find a balance between what Marsha Sinetar in her book Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics called the selfish/selfless life. “I think it interesting that Abraham Maslow acknowledged this phenomenon in a paper he presented in 1951, when he reported that his healthiest subjects were independent, detached and self-governing, and had a tendency to look within for their guiding values and for the rules by which they lived. He also observed their strong preference, even need, for privacy and their detachment from people in general. His healthiest subjects were only superficially accepting of social customs, while in private they were quite casual and even humorously tolerant of them, not feeling that conventions were very important to them. They had the ability to fight convention when they thought it necessary, and judged things by their own inner criteria. When they felt that something (about American culture, in the case of Maslow’s study) was good, they accepted it. When they felt that something was bad, they rejected it. For all these reasons, Maslow called such people autonomous.”
Our universal suffering stems not from influences in the outer world that we live in but has its genesis in our very nature as human beings. We cannot continue to look at the other as the source of our pain whether it be corporations, communists, terrorists or the trans-gendered. We are the problem and the solution is within. We create our own reality as individuals and in “collectives” of all sizes from congregations to Congress, from neighborhoods to nations. How do we do this? Given that this is an essay and not a book, that question will have to be put on the shelf to be addressed at a later time.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.