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Respecting the Past and Embracing the Future: Lessons From Downton Abbey

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As a therapist in D.C., I have worked with many clients struggling to adapt to the Internet revolution and its transformation of the print industry. D.C. is obviously a career-driven town, with many journalists, writers and researchers who must figure out how to make their professional way in this almost paperless new world. Change is never easy and often causes symptoms of anxiety or depression. Without realizing it, people often go to great lengths to deny or resist change. Some people are able to embrace change and use it as a catalyst to grow and evolve. Others are easily discouraged and eventually defeated. There is no easy formula for how to make the most of a changing economy, especially for those in fields that are changing more rapidly than expected.

With clients, we explore what the changes in their profession mean to them, and we strategize to locate opportunities to embrace change and flourish in this new economy. Lately, I have also encouraged clients to watch Downton Abbey. As art imitates life, worthwhile lessons are offered along the way.

This week's episode of Downton Abbey highlights the tension between respecting the traditions of the past and embracing the technological and financial realities of the future. Downton's residents may not provide answers regarding how to gracefully bridge the gap between the past and the future, but they pose some thoughtful and compelling questions that are as relevant today as they were in 1922.

Mrs. Patmore, the head cook, is terrified of the new sewing machine that Lady Cora Grantham's maid has brought to the Abbey, stating, "I don't think it has any business in the servants' hall... Take it to the laundry or, better still, chuck it out altogether!"

A few weeks ago, she was equally disturbed by the electric mixer that her young assistant, Daisy, has mastered. Much to Mrs. Patmore's dismay, when Daisy does the baking, Downton's upstairs dwellers comment on the new and exciting consistency. To make matters even more technologically terrifying, Lady Cora is requesting that they purchase a refrigerator! This will mean no more ice deliveries and a longer shelf life for their food. The concept of tossing the ice box and canceling the daily ice deliveries is deeply disturbing to Mrs. Patmore. (She sounds a lot like parents today who go back and forth with their kids about whether to cancel the daily newspaper delivery.) In frustration, she explains to the staff that Lady Cora wants "more gadgets to waste their money and my time, but nothing can stop her from dragging us into the new age."

Similarly, Lord Grantham is in disagreement with his daughter, Lady Mary, and his son-in-law, Tom, about whether to allow the son of a recently deceased tenant whose family has farmed the land for over a century to continue this tradition in spite of his father's accumulated debts. Mary and Tom insist that the survival of the Abbey means prioritizing the bottom line and that they would be better off financially if they farmed the land themselves. Lord Grantham feels otherwise and is so adamant that this relationship be respected that he secretly sends the tenant a check so that he can repay his father's debt in full and keep farming the land. When arguing his case over dinner Lord Grantham explains, "If we don't respect the past, we'll find it harder to build our future."

Mrs. Patmore may not be happy about the mixer, but she breaks bowls and dirties the floor trying to use it. She allows the new maid to sew her apron with the dreaded machine. Lady Cora presses her on her opposition to the refrigerator, asking, "Mrs. Patmore, is there any aspect of the present day that you can accept without resistance?" And Mrs. Patmore replies, hilariously, "Well, my Lady, I wouldn't mind getting rid of my corset!"

Her humorous perspective implies that she may be able to evolve with the times after all. Likewise, Lord Grantham may not embrace his daughter's and son-in-law's new ideas, but he is willing to engage in the conversation. He is also willing to hand over some degree of control and sends Lady Mary and Tom to talk with the tenant in order to expose them to the human aspects of the bottom line. It seems possible that Lord Grantham wants the next generation to discover that he is secretly paying the tenant so that the tenant can pay Downton. When the tenant mistakenly thanks Lady Mary for the loan, Mary pretends that she knows all about it. After the meeting, Tom asks Mary if she will confront her father. "If Papa believed enough in Drew to lend him the money and hide it from us, it tells me something... You and I are in partnership with a very decent man."

With no easy answers to the question of how to adapt and evolve to change, the most important factors for success may be a willingness to have difficult conversations and an openness to trying new things. As one of my favorite teachers once said, "Sometimes you have to look bad to look good!"

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