On being ... more aware

By Ingrid Sapona

I switched tv/internet providers and as part of the deal, I got a two-month free trial of HBO. The one-line description of the miniseries The Undoing intrigued me. It’s an HBO production and it stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Since I like both of them, I decided to check it out.

I have odd/bad viewing habits. Usually I have the tv on in the background as I’m doing something else (a bit of food prep or light housework, for example). If I’m familiar with the actors and the characters they play, I typically follow along just by listening and glancing at the screen every now and then. When starting a new show, however, I try to give the screen my undivided attention to get the characters straight and to decide whether the story’s interesting to me.

So, the other day I sat down and started watching The Undoing. After the opening credit montage there’s a short scene that foreshadows some plot point that will no doubt be central to the series. Don’t worry – no spoiler alert necessary because I couldn’t even tell you what happens in the first episode.

The truth is, I pretty much tuned out because I was distracted by the very next scene. Actually, I’m not even sure you’d call it a scene. It was a series of still photos of the stately buildings along Central Park West that then dissolve to a short snippet of film showing a bustling New York City street full of cars. When I saw all the traffic, the thought that immediately popped into my head was, “Oh, this is a period piece. It obviously takes place pre-Covid.” I know – a pretty odd though to become distracted over. And yet, distract me it did.

I was struck by how quickly my subconscious compared the brief, bustling urban street scene with the desolate downtown streets that have become the hallmark of large cities grappling with Covid-19. It’s the same kind of thought process I’d have if I was watching a movie and noticed all the cars were Model Ts. In that case, my mind would go to work to figure out what era the film is set in based on the cars. But even so, I was surprised by the fact that in just seven or so months, my subconscious has obviously adopted a different vision of what a contemporary urban street scene looks like. So, the notion of “the time of Covid” has already become a social reference for my subconscious.

That got me thinking about other changes taking place in society that seep into our subconscious without us even noticing. And of course, once I started thinking about this, I noticed others are thinking about the same thing. Indeed, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column on Oct. 28th titled, “The Floor of Decency”.  In that piece, Brooks posited that before the Trump presidency there was a “basic minimum standard of behavior to be an accepted member of society”. As he put it, “… a lot of us weren’t even really conscious of this floor. It was just there, like the sidewalk you step on when you walk down the street.”

Brooks argued that Trump hasn’t just lowered the floor – he has smashed it. He refers to various things Trump’s said and done to show that there no longer is such a floor. That floor, says Brooks, upheld a “basic standard for political behaviour so it was not just dog eat dog.” And with the floor gone, citizens lose faith in government, institutions, and ultimately, in each other.

The conclusion Brooks basically comes to is that the years of Trump have made him aware of how fragile our standards of basic decency are. Armed with this keen awareness of the importance of a floor of decency, he ends on a hopeful note: that a new leader may “bring us back to a world of no bottom.”   

I decided to write about these stories today because to me they have a common theme. They’re both about the idea that lurking below our consciousness are norms, views, and standards that it’s easy to ignore until something comes along to uproot them. And, while it isn’t that important to became aware of something like “the time of Covid” becoming a reference point for our lives, it was a good reminder to me of just how fast notions become engrained in our subconscious. And, coupled with Brooks’ new recognition of the significance of a floor of decency, I have a new-found interest in uncovering the values and ideas lurking in my subconscious. After all, if we don’t learn to recognize the norms and values that matter to us on a subliminal level – things like honesty and integrity – we run the risk of letting them slip away.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona 


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