Listening to the radio the other day, I heard a man being interviewed about his income. He was a bit coy about the amount, but allowed that it was over $450,000 per year. When asked if this made him wealthy, he said no, he considered himself middle class. My reaction was a compound of emotions: disbelief, amazement, anger, contempt.
Last night I watched the opening episode of the third season of Downton Abbey. It revolved around Lord Grantham’s discovery that he had squandered the family fortune through an ill-considered investment in Canadian railway shares, with the likely consequence that his estate and manor house would have to be sold. Considering this possibility at the dinner table, Lord Grantham’s mother, wonderfully played by Maggie Smith, envisions her future as a member of the impoverished nobility. “I could keep a shop, I suppose,” she says, expressing her character’s sense of the utter unthinkability of any such thing actually happening and her simultaneous wise, rueful recognition that in a long life the unthinkable will be encountered from time to time. My reaction was one of empathy for her predicament.
Interesting, the many directions in which the mind would like to run off, given this fuel. The particular constellation of feelings with which I greeted that upper-class yob’s misestimate of his socio-ceconomic standing is one with which I have become boringly familiar, ever since Ronald Reagan acceded to the presidency in 1980 and forcibly made me aware that this nation is governed far more by mean-spirited greed than by the ideals I had learned about in elementary school. So I responded to the interviewee, a living person, as an abstraction, an annoying manifestation of obnoxious political tendencies. By contrast, safely removed by time and circumstance from any actual acquaintance with the type of hidebound parasite so charmingly and ably represented by the actress Ms. Smith, I responded to her fictitious impersonation with warmth and sympathy.
I think that the moral here has to do with the limited ways one responds when one’s responses are faithful to the context in which they occur. As a wise man used to say to me when I would make an undeniably true but overly definitive statement about myself, “Yes, and so much more!” May you and I greet the new year and all it brings with the untrammeled freshness of our open hearts. Maggie Smith’s dowager countess may charm and appal us all at once, as may that poor deluded two percenter who thinks himself the common man. Oh, poor thing, I wish I had said when I heard him.