I’ve got a telenovela addiction.
Netflix figured out through its very clever algorithms that I am the biggest sucker ever for period dramas. For months, it pushed Gran Hotel to the top of my home page. For months, I just couldn’t face a new story; I didn’t want to fall into a binge-watching abyss. Then, some exhausted Saturday, I gave in. On that particular day, I was so desperate that its continental Spanish didn’t dissuade me. I was binge-watching with subtitles.
A new waiter arrives at a scenic luxury hotel in the 1910s and promptly falls for the hotel owner’s daughter — forbidden love! — there’s kissing in corridors, stolen glances in the restaurant, and fabulous costumes. I told myself it was educational; I was learning Spanish after all. Three seasons later, it ended — happily, of course. Netflix was quick to fill the hole left in my life with another offering: Velvet, set in Madrid in the 1960s. This time, it’s a downstairs seamstress in a fancy department store who’s been in love with the owner’s son since their childhood. Costumes, kissing, subtitles, rinse-and-repeat.
“Isn’t that the most human thing? You can’t be with the one you want? Stolen kisses and unsated desire — it transcends language and culture,” my friend observed, as I confess my obsession.
She got me thinking.
St Augustine, that famous, somewhat scandalous lover, said in his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Or, as Paul put it, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
I wondered if part of the reason this oft-repeated story line is so compelling to people the world over is that it’s the story of each one of us. We are all caught in desire for something we can’t quite grasp. We long for closeness that seems elusive. In both of these telenovelas, the wealthier member of the couple ends up married to someone else for the sake of the family’s business. It’s not just society’s expectations that hold the lovebirds apart, but public commitments made to others put up real obstacles to each couple’s happy union.
People who study dreams say that all the people and characters in a given dream represent parts of yourself. Parables often work the same way, whether scriptural or conventional — the characters in the story represent various parts of us or society. What if it’s the same with these upstairs-downstairs dramas and, even more important, with the desire for what lies just beyond our grasp?
What if the kisses we’re stealing are only being hid from another piece of ourselves? What if the longing for intimacy and the drive to be known is frustrated by lingering commitments we’ve already made for the sake of society or success or security?
Maybe Jesus is the waiter or the downstairs seamstress, maybe we are the upstairs heir-apparent. Maybe we’ve told ourselves that it’s okay to be with Jesus in the shadows, but to walk hand-in-hand with Jesus in the town square, or to be seen dining with him, or sit by his bedside when he is sick — those would be too much to bear. We weren’t born into our position for nothing, we didn’t work so hard to get to where we are in life to throw it all away on some summer romance; think of the family’s expectations, think of the ridicule of your friends, think of how your love will surely grow cold, if it’s no longer clandestine.
“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”