This week’s episode of The Office (aired on 5/9/13) left my wife and I in tears. To appreciate why, it is necessary to understand the history of Pam and Jim – the show’s only married couple. Jim started his sales career as a young man, presumably right out of college, at the Dunder-Mifflin paper company. From the beginning of the show, Jim has expressed ambition to do something greater with his career and has seen his position as a paper salesman as simply a stepping stone. At times, he has even expressed dread at the prospects of working at a mid-level paper company for the rest of his life. When Jim started with the company, Pam was the office secretary, and was engaged to Roy (for three years!) – a warehouse worker. Though Jim falls for Pam the first season, it takes a number of years of patient waiting and pursuit for their relationship to blossom and consummate in marriage.
Finally, this last season the opportunity Jim has been waiting for to get out of the paper business and pursue his dreams arises. He partners with some old college friends to start a sports marketing agency called Athlead. As the business grows, he is required to spend more and more time in Philadelphia, away from his family, which inevitably puts a strain on his marriage and builds resentment in Pam who is left to care for their two children alone. As the stress on their marriage threatens to break it apart, Jim realizes that his marriage is more important than his career and decides to take a break from his new company to spend extended time at home to heal his marriage. When he announces his decision to the Dunder-Mifflin owner, David Wallace, Wallace replies incredulously: “I admire your decision. People in my circles won’t even change their golf schedule to work on their marriage.”
Jim’s commitment is put to the test when his company asks him to go on a three month road trip to build clientele on the West Coast. This represents the breakthrough moment the company has been looking for, and perhaps the consummation of Jim’s lifelong career dreams. Yet anticipating the added strain his absence would place on Pam, he makes the tough call to stay home.
Jim does not want Pam to know he has done this, but she finds out by chance, overhearing a cell phone conversation. This provokes her to view herself as an impediment to Jim’s dreams, and she is stricken by guilt. This week she revealed her guilt to Jim, saying that she was not worth this sacrifice. Grieved by her misunderstanding of the depth of his love for her, Jim comes up with a plan to demonstrate why she is worth it.
Throughout the nine seasons of the show, the audience becomes increasingly aware that the story within the story is that a film crew is making a documentary (for PBS!) about life in the Dunder-Mifflin office. Knowing that this request is “against the rules,” Jim asks the producer to compile a montage of scenes that they captured between he and Pam, showing the history of their relationship. He then surprises her with a disk which we the audience get to see.
This is the moment that brought us to tears – not only because it reminded us of how much we loved and will miss the show, but also because of how beautiful true love is. While the other characters romance are characterized by contingency, Jim and Pam’s is the one romance characterized by fidelity. Columnist David Brooks makes this important distinction when diagnosing the crisis marriage faces in our culture:
Marriage is in crisis because marriage, which relies on a culture of fidelity, is now asked to survive in a culture of contingency. Today, individual choice is held up as the highest value: choice of lifestyles, choice of identities, choice of cellphone rate plans. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but the culture of contingency means that the marriage bond, which is supposed to be a sacred vow till death do us part, is now more likely to be seen as an easily canceled contract.
Men are more likely to want to trade up, when a younger trophy wife comes along. Men and women are quicker to opt out of marriages, even marriages that are not fatally flawed, when their ”needs” don’t seem to be met at that moment.
How do we know that fidelity is morally superior than contingency in love relationships? There are many ways to answer this using ethical theory. One could certainly examine the consequences of infidelity and feel saddened and angered by the wreak of broken lives and damage children left in its wake. But consequences alone are not enough to strengthen moral conviction.
There also exists an aesthetic dimension to morality – a kind of moral beauty that reveals to us the rightness of a lifestyle. We see such beauty in an story of true love, a story that will inevitable involve stunning sacrifice for the sake of the beloved, a sacrifice that displays what we all know in our hearts to be true (or at least hope for it to be true) – that people are more valuable than things and accomplishments. Visions of moral beauty evoke an emotional response and are thus confirmed by the emotions. This is why my wife and I were moved to tears.
Whether you are an Office fan or not, please share some of your encounters with moral beauty in the world.