I recently completed another viewing of the television show, Downton Abbey. Lasting six seasons, it’s a melodrama about British high-society and servant life set in the early 1900s. I’ve watched it a few times and am always pleasantly flummoxed by how the show ends. It’s not just a happy ending, but one of the happiest of endings. Every couple in the story is either married off or at least forecast to be married. Virtually every loose end is tied and every conflict resolved. What surprises me isn’t that the show ends this way, but how truly satisfied I feel because of it.
The enlightened artists of our day have moved away from the black-and-white, Golden age era of happy endings. For a movie, TV show, or book to be considered a critical success, it must pry open the ribs of our sentimental veneer to reveal the messy blood-and-guts of true humanity. Life isn’t that simple, they say. We’re all a horrible mess capable of the vilest evil, and we might as well admit it and get on with our lives. And certainly, it’s no more than a naïve joke to assume that any loose end will be tied or that we’ll ever live happily ever after.
Like with many cultural protests, there is some truth in these observations. Humanity has indeed invited a great deal of trouble in trying to maintain masks of perfection, pretending like we have it all together. It is true that we’re all weak, we all have the potential for evil, and that most events throughout our lives aren’t tied up with a tidy bow. So, is it just lazy, wishful thinking for me to resonate so deeply when I watch a show that ends well?
Perhaps. I certainly agree that there is plenty of simplistic art out there that doesn’t reflect true life and the trials of true humanity. But, perhaps one reason I rejoiced at the end of Downton Abbey is that, prior to its miraculous ending, the show was full of trials and tribulations that I did find believable. Downton wasn’t a feel-good show because it was all flowers and daffodils. It felt good to me because I identified both with its trials and with its resolution.
Maybe it is only the naïve masses who cheer for the feel-good movie and the happy ending. But, I think that within all of us, despite how much we may recognize our potential for evil and that complex nuance only appropriate for mature audiences, we also cling to the hope that that isn’t all there is. Perhaps within our love of sentimentality and cheesy melodramas there lies a more authentic instinct—that one day, the fairy tale will end as it should.
God’s story mirrors this odd cohabitation of hopelessness and hope. Simply glance at Old Testament history and the existential angst of the prophets and you’ll find loads of human depravity and open-ended darkness. But, then this Jesus drops into the picture as a bridge between all our suffering and the hope for resolution. He’s real about our weaknesses while inviting us to join him in the far-fetched optimism that all will be made well. Jesus took on the full force of our blood-and-guts depravity so we might be present at the story’s end—an eternal marriage between God and man where everything is tied with a bow that unfathomably rings true.
So, perhaps I’ve just outed myself as one of the lazy, unenlightened gluttons of feel-good entertainment. But, my instincts tell me otherwise. Such endings may seem sentimental and simple, to be sure. But they also fill the plot holes in our own stories that hopelessness can’t supply.
About John Michalak
An author, speaker, musician, and minister, John Michalak has spent more than 25 years equipping others in the areas of life-change and personal relationship. John’s inspirational new book, 365 Devotions To Embrace What Matters Most is now available from Zondervan publishing.
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