The Office & Self-Awareness: Learning to Choose Between Love and Delusion
Guest post by Christian Robert Shockley:
Here’s one of my favorite jokes from The Office. This is the set-up: Andy Bernard, having newly joined the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, attempts to supplant Dwight Schrute as Michael Scott’s number-two man in the office. Andy plans to endear himself to Michael by being a yes-man. Michael, having zero understanding of how people work, doesn’t recognize Andy’s scheme.
“What do you think of Andy?” Michael asks Jim. “Because on paper we should be best friends. We even have the same top-ten, all-time favorite movie list down to the number.”
“Andy’s a yes-man,” Jim explains.
“Not all the time. Sometimes I say I don’t like something, he says he doesn’t like it either.”
Earlier in the episode Michael hides behind his office door to avoid Andy. We hear Michael ask, “How can someone possess so little self-awareness?”
The joke comes in season three of the show and we laugh because in every previous episode, we’ve asked the same question about Michael. How can someone possess so little self-awareness? By the time Andy shows up in the office, we’ve cringed through Michael proposing on a third date, becoming overly attached to his boss/girlfriend, misperceiving his relationships with his subordinates, embodying racism in the worst possible ways, spurning the only loyal friend he has, ruining countless holiday parties, and inserting “that’s what she said” at all the wrong (right?) moments.
Michael isn't the only one lacking self-awareness. Angela’s priggishness double backs on itself so many times that she ends up in a sham marriage to a gay congressman. Conversely, Dwight’s talent as a salesman is overshadowed by his own blend of German-Ninja-Sci-fi moralism to which he adheres at all times, making it impossible for him to see the healthy friendships he could be fostering. The interweaving of this collective lack of awareness makes the show delightfully unbearable.
And while some of us may share Dwight’s love of Battlestar Galactica, it’s doubtful any of us identify deeply with the more outrageous characters on the show. I don’t think I’d want to meet the person who does identify with them, especially with Creed.
Most of us relate to Jim and Pam. Who hasn’t felt like the only sane person in their workplace, surrounded by complete idiots, while feeling trapped by the fear of a dead-end job? Jim and Pam embody the struggle of normal people, going to a boring job, finding satisfaction in a meaningful relationship. Jim and Pam anchor us.
They make watching the mayhem of their coworkers enjoyable. In fact, they make it comfortably fun, almost to the point of our own deception. Jim and Pam provide a high place of awareness from which to view the oddities of their coworkers. They invite us to ask of their co-workers “how can someone possess so little self-awareness?” so we never have to ask ourselves that question. Could we be like Michael Scott? Could we possess so little self-awareness that we limit our choice between delusion and love?
In college, my teacher for Shakespeare and Milton would often repeat a terrifying twist on the old Greek aphorism “know thyself.” I remember distinctly towards the end of a lecture on Iago she slammed her open palm on the desk and said in a whisper, “Know yourself, or be mastered by those who do.” The phrase didn’t strike me with panic, but rather a sinking feeling that even at the age of twenty I’d wasted too many years wallowing in my lack of self-awareness.
My first task was to stabilize myself from the tail-spin created by the second half of the saying (“or be mastered by those who do”). Had I been manipulated all through life due to my lack of self-awareness? Was I on a path like Iago (but with fewer speeches set to iambic pentameter) headed toward destruction? But I had something bigger to figure out.
My second task was to learn what it meant to know yourself, to be self-aware. Fortunately I had a really handy piece of comedy to spring-board me toward an answer. I began tracking the awareness-trajectory of Michael Scott.
After Michael’s joke about Andy’s lack of self-awareness, things get pretty rough. Phyllis’s wedding to Bob Vance—Vance Refrigeration—proves too much for Michael’s incompetence.
After deluding himself into believing that he is part of the wedding party and ruining the vows, Michael gives a horrendous wedding toast. Having looked up the word “welding” in the dictionary rather than ‘wedding’, Michael compares the bride and groom to two metals worthy of being forged together—‘two gold medals,’ he adds.
These mishaps show the worst of his lack of awareness. Failing to know yourself results in a caricature-ish predictability that never comes across as laughable as Michael Scott. From our Jim and Pam point of view, Michael’s actions are hilarious—awkward, for sure, but hilarious. But Michael is in a self-made cage. He thinks he’s being helpful and, worse, Michael thinks he is loving and being loved. He believes he’s functioning as normally in the world as Jim and Pam. That’s the scary part of lacking self-awareness: without it, we delude ourselves into thinking we can love and be loved.
Michael’s life is more of the same for almost the entire next season. Then his dream comes true. Toby Flenderson, a really normal guy who Michael irrationally hates, moves away. In his absence we catch a glimpse of hope for Michael: Holly Flax. Michael loves Holly and she loves him back. For five episodes Michael Scott is almost charming. He’s still delusional (you can see it in his expectations for his relationship), but love begins to make him better. As David Brooks says, “Love is an invading army and we welcome the invasion.” But an invasion, even if it brings liberation, often brings pain.
So Michael’s hopes are dashed. Corporate finds out about Holly and Michael’s relationship and she is transferred. Michael takes the breakup hard and it sends him back into himself, but not without altering his perspective first. Michael experiences life outside of his self-made cage. He catches a glimpse of his dreams coming true, so he can't retreat into himself as the same delusional person. Pain gives Michael the freedom to see there may be happiness outside his own delusions. This is the first step to self-awareness.
In season two, in an episode called “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” Michael confronts his childhood dreams in front of the entire office. He gathers his co-workers and their children into the conference room to watch a rerun of a children's show that he was on as a kid. The host of show, a puppet, asks young Michael what he’d like to be when he grows up. Michael responds, “I want to be married and have a hundred kids so I can have a hundred friends and no one can say no to being my friend.” The puppet is speechless. The conference room is speechless. And Michel retreats.
Michael faces his unrealized hopes and dreams, but at this point there is nothing he can do about them. His pain is broad but it is not deep. The pain of Holly’s departure, however, brings the opposite. Michael comes close to realizing his dream, but he sees it ripped away. He sees that having at least one friend, having love, is possible and it wakes him up. Holly’s departure brings a deep, specific pain that Michael can’t shake off so easily.
After the conference room incident, Michael behaves irrationally and destructively. It’s not much different from how he behaved pre-conference room. But after Holly, we see Michael in prolonged pain and search. He can’t forget his pain so easily, because the pain is mixed with joy.
Love and pain disrupt Michael’s reality. They drag him out of himself so that for the first time he can see how other people see him. And now he has a chance to change. He can choose to retreat back into himself as he’s done when confronted with lesser pain, or he can step out and search for answers. If feeling love is the first step to awareness, feeling its absence is the second. And even though feeling love’s absence in painful, it often grants the awareness to choose between delusion and pursuing some greater joy.
After Holly we see Michael’s taste for joy change. The pre-Holly Michael Scott is bought cheaply. Ask him to guest lecture at a community college and he feels like he’s an Ivy League professor. Give him the passcode to what is clearly an online party and he will assume he’s invited as a guest of honor to a swanky party. If the pre-Holly Michael Scott smells a whiff of a chance for promotion, he’ll assume he’s the front-runner for the job.
Post-Holly Michael is different. He closes a few sales, gets some pats on the back from his boss, and is even asked to lecture other branches on his secret to success. But none of this makes the new Michael Scott happy. He’s already seen through the cheaps joys that his job provides and he knows work won’t provide the same kind of happiness he had with Holly.
If seasons five and six show Michael becoming more self-aware in his career, seasons six and seven show Michael becoming more self-aware in his relationships. No longer do we see the Michael Scott who falls in love with his young waitress from Benihana or with a deceased chair model. Michael goes after women he can realistically get and he begins pursuing friendship in a healthier way. Holly gave him a taste of what a good relationship is and he searches for something like it.
Michael becomes more relationally competent than ever before. He develops a father-daughter like relationship with Erin Hannan the office receptionist (“The Viewing Party”). He begins to adjust his unrealistic view of Ryan Howard (“WUPH.com”). He even starts facing the reality that he isn’t Jim and Pam’s best friend (“Christening”). Then he gets the second chance with Holly he’s always wanted, and it requires him to use every ounce of relational awareness he develops in her absence.
Michael’s second pursuit is a constant battle between choosing delusion or love. Michael makes a poor start of his new chance, deluding himself into thinking it'll be easy. Holly is back in the office, but she has a boyfriend. Michael makes a few childish decisions, throwing an extravagant Christmas party in an attempt to impress Holly, and destroying a gift from her boyfriend out of jealousy. But he quickly orients himself to the situation and begins to act against his impulse to mess things up.
Michael waits for Holly's relationship to end. He shows his impatience a few times, but he's done so well up to this point and the situation is so trying that we can forgive his small outbursts. They are minuscule compared to the Michael Scott who during one relationship edited himself into his girlfriend's family photos.
And finally, in one of the sweetest episodes of The Office, maybe of network television history, Michael and Holly reunite. Frustrated with his longings for Holly and left at a gas station by Jim, Michael sets out across town in a search of something and he finds exactly what he’s looking for.
Michael gets Holly in that episode, but there's one final step Michael must take before he can invest himself fully into the relationship. Michael has improved in many ways. He's experienced specific love and specific pain, but now he needs to invest himself in a specific person.
The lost film of Michael Scott, “Threat Level Midnight,” provides Michael’s final test. “After three years of writing, one year of shooting, four years of re-shooting, and two years of editing,” Michael is ready to show his film. This isn’t the first time Michael showed the film. The previous time he showed it, his coworkers laughed at the movie, which is meant to be an action-drama, because they “thought it was a comedy.”
So the movie provides an awareness battle ground. Pam, having been softened by motherhood, preemptively cares for Michael’s feelings by making everyone in the office promise not to laugh at Michael’s movie. Meanwhile, Michael is excited to show the movie to Holly with hopes of impressing her. Then Jim laughs at the film and Michael must act on his awareness or retreat into delusion.
Everyone in the showing tries to cover for Jim’s flub, saying they love the movie. They praise it as the best film they’ve ever seen. Kevin says that it should be entered into “carnivals.” This is how Michael has trained people to treat him. The office has found that it’s often more convenient to manage Michael’s lack of self-awareness instead of forcing him to recognize it. And in so doing, Michael traps everyone else in his own delusion.
The tension rises when Michael turns to Holly for affirmation. He’s expecting her to play along with the delusion as well. Of course, it isn’t just playing along to Michael. It’s his dream. When Holly fails to give the same affirmation as her coworkers, Michael storms out in a huff saying the film “isn’t good enough.”
“Everyone else said the movie is great. What do you really think?” He asks Holly in an attempt to coerce praise. But Holly refuses to give in. They go back and forth, Michael arguing for his movie--or really for Holly’s acceptance--and Holly’s refusal to give in. Michael finally faces down the delusion that’s trapped him for years. Would he rather have the praise he wants on his own terms or the true love that’s given to him even if it means sacrifice?
Michael calls everyone back into the conference room to finish the movie and he’s greeted with cheers. For the first time, he has full, enthusiastic support for one of his delusions and the only person to refuse the delusion is the HR rep. It’s not unusual for the HR rep to push back against Michael’s lack of self-awareness; Toby has done it for years.
But this time the HR rep is someone Michael loves. And just as he felt how painful life without Holly is when she is transferred, he feels it again in her absence in the conference room. He begins to poke fun at the movie. He points out plot holes and highlights the rude things he had to do to shoot the movie. And then Michael leaves the room to get Holly.
He meets her outside the conference room and she attempts to soothe him: “I’m sorry, the movie really is good.” But Michael has finally seen through his manufactured vision of reality and he chooses love over delusion once and for all. Michael has become self-aware. “No,” he interrupts, “It’s not. It’s not.”
In the next two episodes, Michael gives up his friendship with Todd Packer and decides to leave the only job he’s ever loved to marry Holly. In sacrificing his delusions, Michael has created a way for him to sacrifice real things for the sake of love, too. He shows us what self-awareness means: mastering your strengths and weaknesses to the point of leveraging them for the sake of someone else.
Each character on The Office moves closer to or farther from awareness. They face the not so socially acceptable things about themselves, learning to laugh and grow and change; or they spiral into self-delusion and finally (often hilariously) self-destruct. Most of them follow a similar course to Michael. Through love and loss they see themselves and learn to sacrifice. Even our awareness anchors, Jim and Pam, face trials that call them to choose between love and the delusion of idealized romance.
Each character teaches us that in assuming we are self-aware, we drift into delusion, expecting of ourselves unattainable achievements (being a world famous comedian, dating a supermodel [or a chair model], writing a best-selling book on business, and paying for the college tuition of 20 kids). We soothe ourselves with accomplishments we fabricate (“I captivated the guy who captivated a thousand guys.”). We begin to expect a version of love that no one can ever offer.
It’s difficult to look at ourselves in this critical way, to see our lack of self-awareness and recognize we might be the source of our own unhappiness. It’s more comfortable to pretend we’ve got it together and to sink into the comfort of our own delusion. But as much as we’d like to be Jim, we’ve got to have the courage to recognize our own blind spots. And maybe when we see ourselves like that, maybe when we’ve asked of ourselves “how can someone possess so little self-awareness?” we’ll become self-aware enough to love.
The point of self-awareness—of knowing yourself—is not to cease to be yourself, but to become a better self. Self-awareness affords us the ability to choose according to a new value system. It enables us to choose against our inclinations, to choose right in spite of our weaknesses, to love even if it means sacrifice. And that’s something even Michael Scott can learn.
Header image from NBC