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3 Things ‘The Office’ Taught Me About Love

Published:
December 14, 2023
June 12, 2023
Have you seen 'The Office' yet? This author learned three things about love from the show.

I’ve written about heartfelt things: the hardships that shattered my life, the miracles that filled in the broken places. So in writing now about “The Office,” I’m taken aback by realizing just how personally impactful this show has been, how much it means to me. And I know I’m not alone. This mockumentary about the workers at Dunder Mifflin, an ordinary paper supply company in Scranton, PA, ran from 2005-2013, but it became the #1 streamed show in 2020. It’s estimated that in 2021, people spent 53 billion minutes streaming it. I am certain I added to a million of those minutes.  

What exactly makes “The Office” exceptional? Stellar ensemble acting and impeccable writing aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that the show is an adult version of being read to as a child — bringing the same comfort as opening up a well-worn bedtime story each night. But I would also argue that viewers are drawn to “The Office” because of its surprisingly beautiful illuminations on love. And of course, while we already know these things — (just like knowing what happens in an episode we’ve already seen, or in a beloved storybook read dozens of times) — the lessons of love need to be reinforced again and again.

Here are a few things the show has taught me (warning: spoilers ahead)...

Love requires (lots of) patience 

Nothing describes the main character of  “The Office” better than this quote from Steve Carell, the man who played him: “Michael Scott, at his core, wants to be loved.” This longing, this hunger, plays out in every single episode and is the catalyst for nearly all of Michael’s dreadful personal and business decisions.

From the pilot episode and beyond, it’s clear that Pam the receptionist understands that her boss Michael is emotionally bankrupt. His neediness, manifesting in comic antics throughout a long eight-hour day and five-day workweek, is burdensome to everyone who works under and alongside Michael. But what Pam exemplifies, over and over again, is that no matter how annoying, no matter how ridiculous, Michael still deserves kindness and respect. She sets her boundaries with clarity and politeness, guides him to make better choices, maintains her poise, and offers him equanimity. This patience is the hard work of love. 

I offer this tender interaction, among hundreds. Michael notoriously does very little work as Regional Manager, and thus receives few professional phone calls. Yet he asks Pam to interrupt his meetings with others by showing him a post-it note with a fake message so he can declare, “I’ll call them back,” in an attempt to look important and in-demand. As an employee, Pam goes along with it. But because she brings a rare and welcomed lightness into all she does, in one instance, Pam sketches a friendly little hotdog character on the post-it note. Instead of responding with exasperation, she chose to meet the moment with patience and humor.

Love is found in the ordinary 

The characters in “The Office” are sustained by appreciating the simple things in their world, including actual paper. We see this in Pam’s smiling description of how warm the paper is when it comes out of the copier, and her delight in showing a colleague's daughter how to use the paper shredder. It’s hidden inside the teal teapot that Jim gives to Pam, where he has put his high school yearbook photo.

The love between these two characters is a central story arc. The relationship is slow to grow, but it eventually flourishes. When Jim finally proposes, where does he do it? With his heart overflowing, he gets down on one knee at a gas station. What could be more mundane? There’s a satisfying thrill in how joyfully the lovers embrace at a common, generic rest stop in pouring rain.

Pam continues her life’s journey, becoming a wife and mother, and if you have watched the series to the end, you know that Pam has the last lines. While we behold her watercolor painting of the paper company, she imparts, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things, but isn’t that the point?” I cry every time, because her words are validating and true. This brings me to my final lesson.

Love and vulnerability go hand in hand 

One of my favorite episodes where this lesson is uncovered is “Training Day.” Due to a bruised ego and a few misunderstandings, Michael decides to stand on the roof of the office in an attempt to make a point about how hard his job as manager really is. While his colleagues (and we as the audience) are used to his inane theatrics, this stunt is not only more dramatic than most, it’s dangerous. About to leap off the roof onto a bouncy-house castle below, his employees are gathered in the parking lot, calling up to persuade him to change his mind.  

Several people try to unsuccessfully convince him. At last, Daryl, a blue-collar worker from the warehouse, is given the megaphone. Daryl realizes that his teasing is part of the reason Michael is feeling lost and disrespected now. Even though he’s not one to apologize, he surprises us by shouting with pointed, heartfelt sincerity:

“Mike, you’re a very brave man.  I mean, it takes courage just to be you. To get out of bed every single day, knowing full well you gotta be you.”

Michael, of course, takes this mixed message as a compliment and begins to consider it. “You mean it?”

Daryl goes in even deeper, offering support: “I couldn’t do it! I ain’t that strong. And I ain’t that brave. You Braveheart, man.”

Because of Daryl's vulnerability in offering (an admittedly odd sort of) validation and praise,     Michael feels valued and appreciated and loved. He descends the ladder to safety. 

In a way, “The Office” allows me to end my day by also descending a ladder to safety. I don’t want to head into sleep with stories of true crime, confusing plot twists, or bleak cynicism. So I  return again and again to the world of Dunder Mifflin, a wacky little office in Scranton filled with people who are actually a lot like me — learning about love and how to love well.     

Creators:
Maureen O’Brien
Published:
December 14, 2023
June 12, 2023
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