Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lessons from Dounton Abbey

     TV shows with stories about other people's problems and heroic resolutions offer a voyeuristic escape from the inexorableness of our own lives, even if the settings and costumes of those other lives are no more familiar than a Tolkien fantasy.  The main thing is, the characters suffer, and the acting is so good that their suffering feels familiar and can make us cry.  At least, I cried.
      Last weekend I watched all the episodes of Dounton Abbey back-to-back in two and a half days--that's 28 shows, 1,602 minutes.  I stayed up way past midnight, engrossed, like120 million other viewers, by this fanciful rendering of one British upper-class family's set of personal lives in the early 1900's, and their shadowy underbelly, the butlers, maids and kitchen laborers whose fussy industriousness and unquestioning devotion stabilize the pillars of this extravagant world.  It's hard not to tally up the hundreds, maybe thousands, of working-class people who buck up the highborn Granthem family's superiority complex, from the farmers who grow and deliver those daily wheelbarrowsful of fresh flowers--to freshen up countless parlors and ladies' dressing tables--to the crew who iron the morning newspapers, whip up fish souffles and fruit-filled meringues for lunch, and help the lords and ladies don their underclothes..  The show parallels "Upstairs, Downstairs," and garners most of its appeal from the mirroring that takes place between the two echelons of characters:  the ego-based ones upstairs, who are visible, beautiful, poetically in their suffering, and attentive to their images, and the frenetic ones below, who work, make messes, smoke, steal, moon, plot, and scheme in a windowless maze of scullery, wine cellar, hiding places, corridors and dark record-keeping rooms that are as mysterious and convoluted as a dreamscape.
     At the outset I knew which character I couldn't stand:  Cousin Isabelle, also known as Mrs. Crawley.  There is probably a character or two who grates on every viewer's nerves.  But this isn't a good-guy, bad-guy story, with a clear set of villains..  Except for two overtly mean-spirited figures, Tom and O'Brien, who prowl around downstairs with devilish deliberation, and who plot against newcomers (accruing a smidgeon of self-awareness, along the way) the show is cast with characters you might love or hate, depending on your complexes-- and this is where there are lessons to be learned.
     What are your complexes?  How much do you want to know about the estimated eighty percent of your personality that's wriggling behind the image you see in the mirror every morning?  Who is it back there who's responsible for botching things up, getting confused, drunk, or angry, falling in love, choreographing accidents, forgetting appointments, losing keys, overeating, slipping into reveries about how different life could be, and hating certain people?  However you censor or rationalize your thoughts and behavior, they're always pointing to that eighty percent you'd rather not acknowledge.  But cutting yourself off from it is like disavowing eighty percent of a sizable inheritance.  Why live on less than you have to?
      Some of the ways to get access to the parts of you you don't know are:  1) analyze your dreams;  2) pay attention to your slips of the tongue, forgetfulness and jokes;  3) watch how your world unfolds around you, especially when it's not going well;  4) listen to your criticisms of others, especially the ones you don't really know;  5) study the person you married;  6) identify the people you can't stand.
     Let's do a little exercise with that last one:  Who do you really dislike--in politics or Hollywood, at work, in your personal life, on TV, at the auto mechanic shop or grocery store, anywhere?  Describe the person, listing the things you don't like, including the ones you presuppose.  The people you dislike are the ones who have the most to teach you.  In Jungian parlance, they're your shadow.
     Mrs. Isabelle Crawley is a do-gooder whose excessive concern for others, especially the downtrodden, masks both her self-scorn and an unacknowledged wish to be loved and looked after.  The care she showers on others is what she might wish for herself, but because it's a wish that remains unconscious she sees neediness only in those around her, not in herself.  The sick, the wounded, the dying, and the castaways of society are the people who most resonate for her, because they personify her inner woundedness.
     I would describe Mrs. Crawley as stiff, moralistic, oppressive, and out of touch with her body and the deepest longings of her heart.  She is especially cut off from herself when a doctor-friend makes an oblique avowal of love, because she can't possibly see herself as lovable.  She's a workhorse, constantly  ministering to the debilitated, the lame, and the fallen--those who, in allowing her to care for them, give her access to tiny bits of herself.  But she doesn't have the self-awareness to open these bits up, or to be cared for, too.  She is too rigid to seek affection or pleasure, and if they tap at her windowpane she rushes out the front door to perform more good deeds, dodging self-recrimination.  She never laughs, or revels in the world.  She's the ultimate Puritan:  denying herself, giving to others, rigid, righteous, virtuous, chaste and no fun.
     There is something about Mrs. Crawley that reminds me of myself, but not a self I'd own.  That's why I need to pay attention to her.  If I can see her flaws as a finger pointing to my shadow--a do-gooder hiding behind virtuosity as a way of avoiding a secret wish for more of the world, for love, laughter, revelry, gaiety, and saturnalia--I might be able to dismantle some of the scruples that limit my experience of life and cause unhappiness.  As long as Mrs. Crawley remains other, I'll never get to know that other me, the one Mrs. Crawley makes look so bad, the one she represents.  But is she so bad?  I was shocked to overhear another Dounton fan say how much she admired Mrs. Crawley:  clearly the do-gooder character wasn't her shadow.  Instead, this fan hated Lord Grantham--which reveals something else altogether.  Accepting that Mrs. Crawley's mirrors my own rigidity would allow me to see how such a stance limits my life (whereas the same trait might be desirable for another person, especially someone without self-discipline), from which I might then allow for a different attitude going forward.  Mrs. Crawley could have accepted the doctor's marriage proposal, and had a very different life, if she had wished to change.  Without change, there is stasis and death.
     The first step in getting to know one's unconscious self is to look at the shadow, which is right behind us all the time, and mirrored by the people who irk us, or whom we abhor.  Television shows like Dounton Abbey can bring one's shadow into relief by giving voice to characters who personify our rejected self, the shadow.  If you enumerate the qualities you don't like about a character in any show, you can then assume that those qualities belong to you, and are waiting for you to acknowledge and integrate them, because doing so will open up your life a little.


  1. Something like a woman with four children who has not married? Gov. shrinks would love you, though they would not have the slightest idea of who you are, or what motivates you.

  2. FRAUD. FRAUD. FRAUD. Whine and complain, play victim, without a thought that you did a disservice to many of your patients and evidently forgot the part of medical practice that says, " DO NO HARM."