The power of standards

I miss Downton Abbey. While I acknowledge that at times during the series there were a bit more soap opera-like elements than I would have preferred, the overall feel of the show was uplifting and ennobling. I came to view the characters as close friends and was eager to learn their fate each week, hoping that good would prevail in the end, which it generally did. What was it that made this show so wildly successful? Mentioning that it had the highest ratings ever of any show on PBS, Mark Sappenfield of The Christian Science Monitor in a Daily Briefing defines the reason behind its appeal as best as I’ve heard it explained yet: “Beneath everything was fellowship, propriety, and the portrait of men and women who- for all their many faults- sought high standards, whether upstairs or downstairs” (see Daily Briefing from March 7, 2016).


No wonder so many people tuned in on Sunday nights to watch the Crawleys and their associates find their way out of sticky situations and held hopes for their resilience next week when they fell short. It feels invigorating and encouraging to watch people live with integrity even when it involves a struggle. It empowers us to live better lives ourselves.


I’ve been pondering the word “standard” this week because it was prominent in the Christian Science Bible Lesson. The Golden Text, which opens the lesson and is a theme that runs through it, says: “...lift up a standard for the people” (Isaiah 62:10). The word “standard” is sometimes translated in various versions of the Bible as “banner” because it referred to a flag that was literally lifted, often during battle. Our modern word “standard” comes from an old French word meaning “extend”, which may have been associated with the act of lifting up a flag on a pole for people to rally around. We think of a standard as a principle or ideal, something to aspire to. And as we strive to think and live in a way that raises or extends that ideal, it can have a powerful influence on the world.


Mary Baker Eddy describes “man’s original standard” as “the spiritual man made in the image and likeness of God” (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 186). That is the ultimate ideal. We aren’t mortals trying to attain that impossibly high standard. The image and likeness of God is who we are, how God created us, according to Genesis 1. The way to “lift up a standard for the people” is to bear witness to this truth by claiming it for ourselves and others.


Last week I was eager to watch another PBS offering, one of my favorite things ever on television. A PBS station near my parents’ house had aired Anne of Green Gables, a television version of one of my favorite books since childhood, and my dad had taped it for me to watch during a visit. When I turned the TV on, about to figure out how to access the show on the DVR, I was immediately confronted with the breaking news of the Brussels attacks. Once I heard the basics of what had happened, I was presented with the choice of continuing to watch the news or starting Anne of Green Gables as I had anticipated.


To be honest, my initial reaction to hearing about the attacks was a despondent and rather resigned, “Here we go..not this again. I don’t even want to hear about this.” News of terrorist episodes and hate crimes has become more and more common, to the point of viewer fatigue. But somehow it seemed irresponsible for me to watch this relatively lighthearted story of a red-headed heroine unfold rather than pay attention to the details of this disturbing breaking news. I felt I would be an irresponsible citizen to turn away from the news story, which was obviously quite serious. Then I asked myself, “What is it that I love so much about Anne of Green Gables? Why am I so eager to watch it?” I realized that it really was the same thing mentioned in the article about Downton Abbey. I loved to watch Anne live to her high standards of integrity and compassion. It inspired me to do the same. These standards were in direct opposition to the ugly elements of behavior that had appeared to play out in the actions of the attackers in Brussels.


I decided to turn away from the news report and seek refuge in watching Anne of Green Gables, but during the show and afterwards I thought and prayed about applying the true standard of “the spiritual man made in the image and likeness of God” to the situation in Brussels. I thought about how those who had perpetrated these horrific acts appeared to be deprived of an opportunity to live to that standard, but truly no one can be left out of God’s presence; truly even they were part of God’s creation. And those who appeared to be victimized could never have actually been separated from the God that created and maintained them as reflections of Divine Life. I knew that those who were on the ground in Brussels would be living to that high standard that was their divine birthright by reflecting Divine Love to one another in the form of tangible support and care.


People who end up committing terrorist acts do so because they have not found a satisfying and fulfilling way to live to a higher standard. Many formerly radicalized individuals are working to support young people in aspiring to that standard rather than yielding to the false appeal of joining terrorist groups (see this article in The Christian Science Monitor). I believe that by making our best effort to live to the standard we were created to lift up, embracing our identity as the image and likeness of God and looking at others in the same way, we can join the characters of our favorite PBS shows in stirring the world to emulate these high ideals more fully.