Dr. Louis Hoffman recently published a book, Existential Psychology: East-West, is a collection of articles written by leading scholars of Existential psychology. I was drawn to one particular chapter titled “An Existential Analysis of American Beauty” by Cathy Calvert, Kate Calhoon, Steve Fehl, and Christen Gregory.
Briefly, the film focuses on Lester and Carol Burnham. They have been married 20 years, live in a plush suburban home with their teenage daughter. Lester is number. His marriage is loveless his job is meaningless and his daughter pretty much hates him. The mother is shut down and the daughter is distant for reasons of protection and emotional safety.
This chapter in Hoffman’s book takes an existential lens to the story of two American families in this film. The story is about the denial of self, ignoring anxieties, pursuing meaningless goals and intentions are all part of the study and practice of existential psychology.
They lay the groundwork by recalling Rollo May’s The Cry for Myth. Myth is the shared story that helps us to make sense of our lives. These stories help to ease our fears, anxieties and guilt by providing us with a narrative that helps us to explain why we do what we do.
According to the authors of this chapter of Hoffman’s book, the myth of American Beauty is the myth of obedience. This story gives us the rules that we must follow in order to succeed in western society. There are standards to being human in Western culture. Calvert, Calhoon, Fehl and Gregory provide us with a list to remind us of some of the rules.
“Don’t be rude”, “Don’t rock the boat”, “Don’t overdo it”
I would like to add to this list the additional terms of agreement that many of us are required to follow in Western society that butt up against our own identities.
“Speak properly” “Straighten your hair”, “English only.”
Follow these rules and we will have money in the bank, a house on the hill and a perfect stellar family.
“The myth of obedience lies in its promise that doing the ‘right thing’ will give us comfort and confidence, maintain order, reduce anxiety, and garner admiration.”
The characters in this film show us a common story about how following these rules leads to isolation, meaninglessness, and anxiety.
For Lester it is a meaningless job and loveless marriage; for Carol’s a loveless marriage and relentless pursuit of being absolutely perfect; for their daughter Jane who is invisible to both parents and is trying her own search for beauty as a way to be seen. This is the existential picture of the American family and the American dream.
The authors tie in this film narrative with the real life existential issues of being human. Yes, we can be like the characters, sedating ourselves from the pains of life with behaviors, addictions and sanctioned treatments. We can be like Carol who is trying to be a picture of Supermom all the while denying herself genuine and freeing relationships with her daughter and husband. Lester is stuck being less than himself while serving a similar agenda of being the ultimate provider. All the while Jane is engaged in the battle for beauty and acceptance and her weapon of choice is cosmetic surgery.
Like the authors of this chapter state, the worries and concerns of the world do not necessarily go away for the characters nor for us. They creep into our day to day lives and show up as anxiety and depression.
A recent CDC study found that the number of American adults who use antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications has increased by nearly 400% from 2005-2008.
Pharmaceuticals can help but what may be even more helpful is not only some sort of treatment if it the pain is so severe, but taking the time to discover what pain is all about and to break free.
What happens when one realizes that when they followed these rules they have given up all that they were and could have been?
A quote from the chapter,
“Often, the individual can only know what his or her true desires are if he or she allows him or herself to experience them, or at least acknowledge that he or she has these desires”
The authors of the chapter refer to Rollo May’s suggestion that breaking free from the myth can leave one feeling lost and emotionally destroyed. When the myth is destroyed there is no point of reference, no rules, and no guidance as to how one should be in the world. Without that, people are left with nothing and must take responsibility for their lives and chose to rebuild themselves in their own model.
The authors use the film as way to illustrate how an individual may break free for a story that no longer serves them. Lester Burnham walks away from it all. He tries to create a new myth and a new self, like so many have tried and managed to do.
It is a hard struggle. The myth of obedience is a story that many find useful. It can bring us “…comfort and confidence, maintain order, reduce anxiety, and garner admiration”. But for some the costs of losing oneself, their purpose and meaning is too high of a price to pay.
Letting go of the myth of obedience calls for the individual and society to create a new myth; one that honors all that makes us uniquely human. There would not be any rules just guidance that encourages one to make choices and take responsibility for their lives. They would free to be genuine and honest with themselves and others and hopefully step out of isolation into community. That would be a far better American dream or more likely reality.
— Makenna Berry