As anyone who has seen the first season of Downton Abbey knows, Lord Grantham’s wife Cora finally conceives a male heir after his three daughters are already adults, but then loses the baby when she slips on a piece of soap on the floor next to her bathtub. The soap was purposely planted there by Cora’s maid, Miss O’Brien. O’Brien thinks Cora is planning to replace her, after overhearing and misunderstanding a conversation about a maid being hired for Cora’s mother-in-law.
How often do we do that? Hear a few words out of context and think we know the whole story?
But, beyond that, although most of us would never try to cause a pregnant woman to fall, have we ever done something out of equally hateful impulses? Maybe something from motives so evil that the thought of it sends chills down our spine years or decades later?
I could hardly bear to look at O’Brien when she realizes that her mistress never intended to send her away and, in fact, loves her blindly. Her mistress has not the slightest suspicion that the soap was intentionally placed in her path. No one has the slightest idea. But O’Brien knows. She knows that she caused a baby’s miscarriage. She did the equivalent act to taking a woman today and forcing her to have an abortion.
Looking at O’Brien in that moment, I see a desolate woman who has to live with private guilt forever, whether or not she ever confesses to anyone what happened. Her sin cannot be undone. It can be forgiven but its effects are permanent.
Even if her mistress had intended to send her away, her response was disproportionate, wasn’t it? It is the equivalent response to the people today who are fired from a job and return with a weapon to shoot the place up! Being fired, even wrongly, is not equivalent to being murdered.
But . . . I remembered tonight a time when I was about seven years old and was out in the countryside, at a friend’s slumber party for her birthday. It was my first slumber party and it was exciting and scary at the same time.
My friend lived on a farm. And we were having a hayride right after dark. I only knew my friend at the party, as the other girls were from her school, out in the countryside.
One of the little girls started to fall off the back of the wagon but caught herself. She struggled to get back on. In the process, I looked down and realized she had grabbed my hand. She was hanging off the back of the wagon, gripping my hand. She struggled for what seemed like forever to right herself, with no success.
What happened next I could never explain if I lived a thousand years. I got tired of holding onto her hand while she struggled to get back on the wagon. Not physically tired. Annoyed. Tired of this needy stranger holding my hand. I let go.
She plunged underneath the wagon. We did not run her over, but she was injured. She didn’t break anything, but we didn’t know that for sure until she had been taken to the doctor.
No one ever found out why she fell. She didn’t remember holding my hand, I am sure. I carried a cold edge of guilt over that act for many years. In fact, I don’t remember ever telling anyone about it, until now.
We can make all kinds of excuses for me. I was only seven. I didn’t know she would fall. I didn’t intend for anything bad to happen but just wanted to get her to stop holding on to me. And she wasn’t really hurt badly after all.
Except . . . I know that in my heart lurked that same cold impulse that animated O’Brien when she set out to get revenge. I didn’t care one toss for this girl. She was an annoyance to me and I got rid of the annoyance, like swatting a bug.
I didn’t mean for her to fall, but if she had been crushed and killed beneath the wheels of the haywagon, it would still have been due to my cold, sinful heart.
You see, that is our guilty little secret. In the hearts of all of us lurk those moments when we don’t really care about the wellbeing of others. And, when we are like that, we are not much better off than Miss O’Brien.
That is the brilliance of Downton Abbey. There are some true villains there. O’Brien is usually one of them. But when we look deeply at them, we realize the villainy of our own hearts.
And those of us who are Christians humbly bow and thank Jesus for coming to redeem our villainous hearts.