Undeniably Invested: A Few Lessons from ‘Downton’

My wife and I finally finished viewing our DVD set of the (perhaps-over-publicized) third season of “Downton Abbey” late last week. It was something of a nail-biter to make it to the end of the ninth episode without someone, somewhere, further revealing additional plot points ahead of schedule. However, despite the best efforts of The Washington Post, The New York Times and ESI’s own Charles Anderson, we somehow managed to avoid any major plot spoilers.

Along the way, though, I became increasingly disturbed by 1) how much I truly enjoyed the series, and 2) how deeply the various characters that populate Downton began to worm their way into my daytime thoughts and reflections. Why, I had to wonder, am I worrying about the ultimate fate of John Bates as I drive to work? For a guy like me, this simply did not make much sense. I am not much of a follower of anything, and it normally takes a lot of time to get my buy-in. Not so with “Downton.”

Months ago, I began watching the series more or less as a means of serving my wife, much as any man might agree to honor his beloved by purchasing tickets to a film featuring the acting talents of Kate Hudson and/or the musical stylings of Yanni. “Chick flick” is as good a way as any to describe the internal rumblings that pretty much summed up my initial attitude toward watching anything that featured period costumes, lots of impassioned conversation and very little in the way of guns, bombs and choreographed Kung Fu. Of course, I am now very much aware of how seriously wrong my heart was in this particular matter.

So the question has been floating in and out of my consciousness for several weeks now, a by-product of the sheer delight that was unexpectedly mine courtesy of producer/writer Julian Fellowes and the talented “Downton” cast and crew: “How did it get under my skin so quickly and so deeply?”

And then it hit me.

At some point, I made the connection between the fictional inhabitants of Downton and the also-fictional residents of Port William, Kentucky, the setting for many of the delightful novels of Wendell Berry. While the polished marble halls of Downton could not be more different in character to the time-ravaged farms and dwellings of Port William, there was one note that unified both settings, namely the societal and emotional investment that people routinely made in one another, the unspoken assumption that we are called to live in community, a depth of care and concern that is often lacking in today’s transient-lifestyle, drive-through eating, reality-TV, text-messaging “LOL” culture. In contrast to the way that we modern Americans tend to lightly touch down into one another’s lives for brief periods of time, only to helicopter back out when the going gets tough – or perhaps just “too intense” – the denizens of Downton have neither the means nor the inclination to become “uninvested” in one another, but rather see the very real need to dive into the messiness of life and grapple with The Big Questions together.

Simply stated, one underlying assumption that seems to inform the work of Fellowes as it does Berry is that we find our truest selves when we commit ourselves to community. The various characters who give themselves over to selfish ambition, pride or anything else that smacks of self-focus are ultimately portrayed as the most lost, tragic and miserable. By way of contrast, characters who labor mightily – despite opposition – for the good of something larger than their own self-styled kingdoms are invariably the happiest, most assured and least confused.

In His earthly ministry, Jesus used the phrase “one another” quite a lot. He was deeply concerned with how we as individuals give ourselves over to the service of others. As if His ministry of preaching and healing were not ample evidence of His great concern that we labor for the good of others, the end of his earthly life was marked by a scandalous decision to wash the dirty, nasty, smelly feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17). In the ancient Near East, and indeed even today, this is probably one of the most disgusting tasks one can undertake, and yet few examples of unpleasant work could be simultaneously more intimate than working on the feet of another.

Here in Columbia, Mo., I feel very blessed indeed to be called into a caring community of individuals who are seeking after the good of our city and willing “to get their hands dirty,” so to speak. Make no mistake about it, the lives of other people are exceedingly messy. Yet Christ calls us to set aside our desire for autonomy and yoke ourselves instead to His good purposes for life and light in the lives of others. As with any investment – monetary or emotional – not all of them will seem to “pay off” in this lifetime. We will doubtless “waste” a lot of time on people who are stiff-necked and unyielding to God. Our call to live selflessly for others will not be the smooth ride that we might all hope for. Still, we are called to simply invest in one another, with little to no regard for any sort of remuneration.

Previously, I was a believer in what was once called The American Dream, but came to see its shallowness as the years went by and the satisfaction of my soul waned. The gospel of Christ breathed life into my self-absorbed heart, but there was much work to be done in terms of accepting the need for personal sacrifice. As the Spirit of God has patiently kept on with the repair work within my soul, it has been very gratifying to observe how I have oh-so-gradually been given “eyes to see” the need we all have to put our shoulders to the plow and not look back (Luke 9:62). As a Christian, I firmly believe that all truth is God’s Truth, and can say without doubt that absent the word of Christ taking up residence in my dark, blackened soul several years ago, I might well have fallen asleep during the first hour of “Downton.”

Acts 17:22-28
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being;’ as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.'”

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