Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For March 19 weekender, 2016
Remembering Downton and Nancy
David W. Hegg
From time to time I sit back and ask questions of my surroundings and myself. Very recently I sat in front of a television with my wife as we watched two distinctly different programs that brought about the same sense in us.
The first was the final series episode of Downton Abbey. As the final credits rolled by we both exclaimed how much we would miss our yearly appointments with the family and staff of that beautiful house with its slice of early 20th century English life.
More recently we watched some of the eulogies for Nancy Reagan, former First Lady of the United States of America. As various friends and family members shared stories of her life and especially her love for her husband, the same sense began to rise up. Something in us was saddened, not only by her passing, but also because a certain sensibility, an accessible nobility if you will, had somehow slipped away from the American scene.
And so I ask the question. What is it about Downton Abbey that reaches into our hearts and wrings out of them both joy and sadness? Why do the stories about the gracious manner of a Nancy Reagan, and her magical love affair with her “Ronnie” leave us feeling like something is missing in our lives, and in our world?
I’m sure professional sociologists and psychologists could fill reams with their answers, but I will venture my own. Basically, we long for that which is beautiful, noble, virtuous, and honorable. We know, intrinsically, what these characteristics are, and we understand that when they are in full bloom, society is so much better.
We enjoy the order of things at Downton, even knowing the subjugation of certain classes is ultimately degrading. We appreciate the civility, and the social restraint, even as that same restraint makes the Dowager’s cynicism so strikingly funny. Most of all, I believe we all long for family, even with its challenges. We want to belong somewhere, have a purpose and a home. Most of all, we long to have lives of both meaning and beauty. Downton just gave us a fictional place to locate our longings, and many of is will miss it dearly.
In Mrs. Reagan we saw a strong woman whose loyalty and humor made her deep sense of propriety and nobility very accessible. She was the queen you could sip coffee with, and she represented a day when political enemies could share friendships and really mean it. Sadly, with her passing we have come even more to realize just how far we have slipped.
Simply put, as a society we’re just not very nice, not very noble, not very genteel anymore. And yet when we see “nice” and experience “noble”, and witness the graciousness of “genteel” we like it. We have families, but we are experts and breaking down the very relationships we long for. We want friendships, but we’re not very good at being friends. We know how we should think, love, and act, but we’ve gained so much momentum racing downhill on the road of selfish pragmatism there is great doubt we can stop before crashing at the bottom.
What we need is a return to real virtue. And that begins with taking a critical appraisal of our own individual souls. Who are you? What lies at the base of your humanity? For me the answer is always found in my relationship with my Creator, who formed me, and is in the process of re-making me in the image of his Son.
Augustine, the great 4th century philosopher and theologian said it best: “O God, you have made us for yourself, and we are restless until we find our rest in thee.” If he was right, it could also be the longings of our souls for beauty, and peace, and honor and most of all, relationship, are meant to remind us the foundation of a truly noble society is found in a right relationship with our God.
If we compare where we were only a few decades ago with the surprising crassness, dishonesty, and vulgarity of today there can be no doubt we are racing toward a moral collapse in America. Yet, it is not the nation that concerns me. It is the individual people whose souls make up the nation. I just pray it is not too late to apply the brakes.