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Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, LICSW

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On Love and Compassion: Lessons From Downton Abbey

Posted: 02/13/2013 6:05 pm

Once again, I am encouraging my therapy clients to tune into this week's episode of Downton Abbey. Not for the fabulous costumes or historical intrigue, but for its riveting exploration of the relationship between love, connection, and compassion. The message of episode six is powerful and clear: When people feel loved, heard and connected, they are much more likely to show compassion, take a stand, and do the right thing.

Mr. Bates' adjustment to life outside of prison is a wonderful example. During the gloom and doom of his days of unjust imprisonment, Mr. Bates was heading down a dark and dreary road that included pulling knives on other inmates, making threats, and pushing away his beloved Anna. Upon his release, he immediately spars with his long-time rival, Thomas Barrow, who has taken his place temporarily as Lord Grantham's valet. When Anna assures him that Thomas will be instructed to step aside so that Bates can return as his Lordship's valet, Bates smiles and sighs and exclaims, "Ah, revenge is sweet."

Bates' spiteful attitude gives the impression that prison may have hardened him beyond repair.

Next, a humiliated Thomas gets caught trying to kiss Jimmy, and Mr. Carson fires him while making a sickening display of homophobia: "I do not wish to take a tour of your revolting world... You have been twisted by nature into something foul!"

To make matters worse, a hateful Mrs. O'Brien convinces Jimmy to threaten to go to the police unless Mr. Carson not only fires Thomas after 10 years of service, but also refuses to provide him a reference.

Ironically, it is Thomas who pulls Bates out of his post-prison funk and helps him count his blessings. Thomas and Mr. Bates are outside the small cottage that Anna has transformed overnight into the most charming home, as a dejected Thomas contrasts their realities:"I envy you... I mean it. The happy couple and everyone's so pleased for you."

Finally, Mr. Bates realizes his good fortune, embraces his darling Anna, and realizes he must show compassion, take a stand and not allow homophobia among Downton's staff to destroy Thomas' future. Bravely, Bates intervenes, puts Mrs. O'Brien in her place, and convinces Lord Grantham to ensure that Thomas (his greatest professional rival) is treated fairly.

The episode's emphasis on connection and compassion is even more obvious when it comes to Lord Grantham. Last episode, while estranged from his wife, Lord Grantham became so miserable and spiteful that he was reduced to barging into a luncheon in his wife's honor and announcing that everyone must leave at once so that they are not engulfed in scandal through their willingness to eat food that has been prepared and served by a former prostitute. Lord Grantham's wife, mother and daughters all reject his petty perspective and his efforts to shut down the luncheon are a total flop. Lord Grantham spends the rest of the episode fuming about one son-in-law's desire to face the economic reality of the estate's future, his other son in law's rightful decision to baptize his daughter by the Catholic Church, and his unmarried daughter Edith's reasonable desire to write a newspaper column. Without his dearest Cora, Lord Grantham becomes the show's most un-evolved and unpleasant character.

Fortunately, Granny Violet intervenes and helps Lady and Lord Grantham reconnect. As they rebuild their marriage and grieve the tragic loss of their daughter Sybil together, Lord Grantham becomes far more likable. Sure, he initially resists Matthew's efforts to do what is necessary for Downton to have a sustainable future, but he allows Tom to convince him to come around. By hinging his willingness to modernize Downton on the condition of Tom's participation in the annual cricket match, the endearing aspects of his lordship's personality finally return. He gives Edith permission to write her newspaper column and he allows his wife to convince him to accept baby Sybil's catholic christening. Sure, he takes a stupid jab at the Catholic church likening all of the "crossing and bobbing up and down" to a "gymnastics display," but when Tom reminds him that Sybil would have wanted him to attend and loved him "with all her heart" Lady Grantham gently explains that Tom's point is unarguable and Lord Grantham agrees to attend and support the christening. He even poses for a photograph with his granddaughter and the Catholic priest!

By far the most important demonstration of how love and re-claimed connection inspire Lord Grantham's compassion occurs when Bates pleads with Lord Grantham to allow Thomas to keep his job in spite of his sexuality. Lord Grantham sounds completely evolved and secure as he hysterically replies:

I mean if I shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eaton, I would have gone horse in a month!

When Alfred makes a pathetic last-minute attempt to have Thomas arrested for being gay, Lord Grantham makes an moving case for compassion:

I am not asking you to abandon your beliefs... just to introduce a little kindness into the equation... Thomas does not choose to be the way he is. And what harm was done, really, that his life should be destroyed for it? Well, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Are you without sin Alfred? For I am certainly not.

Lord Grantham insists that the police have been wrongly summoned and he bravely protects Thomas from the backlash of bigotry and homophobia. Given his own pathetic expressions of prejudice while he and his wife were not on speaking terms, it seems obvious that his wife's love and support are grounding him, guiding him through the terrible grief of his daughter's death, and allowing Lord Grantham to be the leader Downton wants and needs.

As a therapist, the connection between love, connection and compassion is a common theme. Obviously, a sense of love and connection is never a necessary pre-requisite for compassion; however, the relationship can be transformational. I once worked with a client in her 30s who had never experienced a relationship that lasted longer than a few weeks. By working through significant trauma from her past, and by examining her own pattern of choosing unsuitable, unavailable partners, she learned to make healthier relationship choices. A few months into a relationship with the man whom she eventually married she reflected:

I'm still the same person, obviously. But knowing that I have such a wonderful person to talk with and enjoy at the end of each day hasn't just made me happier. I'm gutsier. A colleague made a racist remark at the office and I spoke out in objection. And others chimed in to support me. The old me had all of the same views, I just lacked the confidence to express them.

Whether it is 1921 or 2013, love is a powerful promoter of the best impulses of the human spirit.

 

Follow Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, LICSW on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elisjoy

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