Jim Harnish

Lessons I Learned at “Downton Abbey”


Farewell to Downton Abbey

My wife and I are preparing to go through major withdrawal after the final episode of “Downton Abbey”.

In contrast to the drivel that passes for drama on the commercial networks and the non-stop political chatter on the cable news channels, the PBS series has been as good as television can get; a masterpiece (appropriately) of story-telling and production combined with superb dramatic portrayals of characters about whom we actually care. We feel like we are losing old friends.

I’ve been thinking about lessons I’ve learned at Downton.

The Relentless Force of Change

Beginning with the sinking of the Titanic, the story has been about dealing with change, most of it unexpected, much of it unwelcome, and all of it beyond the power of the Crawley’s upstairs and the servants downstairs to control, although the Dowager Countess, played impeccably by Maggie Smith, has done her very best!

Lord Grantham upstairs and Mr. Carson downstairs have kept their feet firmly rooted in a way of life that is rapidly fading away. Everything in the house ultimately depends on how they are able to maintain their core values and personal stability while adapting to the radically different world in which the find themselves.

A fellow pastor pointed out the scene a few weeks ago in which Barrows interviewed for a job in an old, largely abandoned, decrepit house in which a lonely, bitter, old man was reminiscing about the days gone by and holding on for those times to return.  But we know they never will.

Sound familiar?

It’s an understatement to say that much of the anger in our country is a visceral reaction to seismic change in the world around us.  Every time I hear people say they want to “take back America” I want to ask: Back to what? Back from whom?

Some of the answers became clear in a poll that found 53% of Americans (72% of Tea Party supporters) believe that “American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the worse since the 1950’s.” For good reasons, 60% of African Americans said that things have changed for the better.

I grew up in the ‘50’s. Although my home never lived up to the perfectly-ordered, perfectly-patriarchal world of “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It To Beaver,” it was typical of the middle-class mythology that has grown up around that time.  As a middle-class, white, male, Protestant I inherited opportunities that did not exist for women, African-Americans, or persons of other religions. For folks like me, it was a cozy, comfortable way of life.

But there’s no going back.  I wouldn’t want to if I could.  While change always carries risk of loss and change for change’s sake is a dangerous fantasy, we are a greater country because of some of the cultural changes we have experienced in my lifetime.  I’m grateful that my daughters and my grandchildren live in a more racially, ethnically and religiously inclusive culture.  I’m grateful that the promise of “liberty and justice for all” continues to be expanded to other people.

If the real question is not about going back, but going forward, the key is finding the wisdom to hold onto the values and commitments that will sustain us through times of change.  We’ve seen that at Downton, too.

The Power of Love 

We’ve watched Robert, Carson and Lady Violet adapt, albeit reluctantly, to the changes that have been forced upon them.  Robert has found his way to accept gigantic change in his daughters precisely because he loves them.  Last Sunday, even the Dowager Countess told the strong-willed Mary that she believes in love.

There is, sure enough, loss along the way.  There are things about the past that we need to hold onto.  There are traditions that are the ballast that keeps our ship afloat.  We need core values that stand the test of time and guide us through change.

But in the end, it’s about relationships and about finding the way through change by drawing on deeper resources of character, respecting tradition and reshaping it in new times.

James Russell Lowell wrote:

New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward,
who would keep abreast of Truth.

The Gift of Memory

Edith, who has had more than her share of pain, had one of the most beautiful lines of the series last week when she reminded Mary, with whom she has had more than her share of conflict, what it means for them to be sisters.  It was, in a sense, the word for all of the “Downton” fans as we come to the end of the story.

In times when the relentless force of change causes us to be angry and afraid, we need to be reminded of the deeper things we hold in common, of the people who matter to us, and of the power of those memories to sustain us into the future.

We talked about “Downton Abby” with some old friends last week.  Over a long dinner, we remembered the things we had experienced together across more than three decades of friendship.  Some memories caused us to laugh out loud. Others made us hold back a tear.  All of them reminded us of just how important those relationships are.

In the end, we will remember and we will give thanks for the way God’s faithful love has sustained us through change.  The words of an Anglican hymn they would have sung in the village church at Downton Abbey still says it well.

Through all the changing scenes of life,
in trouble and in joy,
the praises of my God shall still
my heart and tongue employ.

O magnify the Lord with me,
with me exalt his Name;
when in distress to him I called,
he to my rescue came.

Fear him, ye saints, and you will then
have nothing else to fear;
make you his service your delight;
your wants shall be his care.

For God preserves the souls of those
who on his truth depend;
to them and their posterity
his blessing shall descend.

Grace and peace,