A few months ago my wife and I watched “Mrs. Wilson,” a recent installment of PBS’s Masterpiece. For me, it was extraordinary: a story so honest and penetrating you could use it for lectio divina (the slow, contemplative reading of a sacred text).
Without giving too much away, “Mrs. Wilson” tells the true story of a husband and wife who worked in the British Foreign Office during World War II. He dies suddenly at the program’s beginning, and little by little the story of his life—the story he’s told as gospel to Mrs. Wilson and their children—begins to unravel, with disastrous effect.
What struck me hardest was the portrayal of some spiritual truths I’ve never understood, or only understood dimly. I may be able to live them better thanks to this program. Here are a few. (Note: the following may be useful whether you’ve seen the show or not. Still, I’d recommend you watch it anyway. It’s only three episodes.)
Facts and truth are two different things. There’s a point in the story when we viewers have completely lost our grip on which Alec Wilson stories are fact and which are fiction. Mrs. Wilson has no clue either, which is the agony of this show. The challenge before her is to discern the essential truth of her husband when she can never verify the stories. She does find a way, by homing in on what she herself experienced: that Alec loved her, and loved their sons, and was a superb father.
Love isn’t what we’ve been told it is. When I say Alec loved, it makes no judgment on the lies he may or may not have told, or the multiple lives he led, or what he left out of his stories. It simply denotes what he did at certain points of his life—like telling his sons bedtime stories—and that’s part of the conclusion Mrs. Wilson comes to.
Forgiveness is hard work. When a priest tells Mrs. Wilson that “understanding comes before forgiveness,” she travels to a former war hospital to uncover stories that might hold the key to his behavior. Sometimes understanding those background details—part of the innumerable causes and conditions that, according to Buddhism, make us who we are at any given moment—can enlarge the heart to welcome those who have wounded us. We see that they, like we, are massively broken and imperfect and, in most cases, trying so hard to do good.
Faith sneaks up on you. This isn’t just true of people who haven’t thought much about faith. It’s true for all of us. Just when we think we’ve hit a groove in the life of spirit, spirit takes us in a different direction before we can see what’s happening.
Perhaps the most profound lesson is what interweaves through most of these other lessons: we only know of people what we experience directly. We see their truth in the moment and that is all we have. Maybe the best we can do is embrace it, welcome it, and extend love to them as best we can.
If you do watch it, I’d love to hear what you learned.