Raising Awareness of Awareness
After watching the box office-topping movie The Revenant during winter break, I came back with an abundance of food for thought. Besides the fact that the movie was greatly entertaining throughout, there were a couple of lingering impressions that I came away with. Both of these reflections came from the same unique quality about this movie, which has probably contributed to its staying power at the box office. This element is the movie's strong emphasis on naturalism. This is a two-sided coin, meaning that not only is the audience exposed to gorgeous displays of pristine scenery, but also to brutally realistic human pain and suffering. An especially jarring example of the latter (spoiler alert!) is a scene where we see Leonardo DiCaprio get mauled by a bear, to the point of near-death. Unlike a typical action scene, there is eerily no music playing during the encounter, and all the audience hears are the harsh sounds of struggle and torn flesh. This goes on for an approximately painful, and might I say awkward, 10 minutes.
My immediate reaction was something along the lines of the above. But as time passed by, I realized that there is another layer to what was going on. Presumably, the director's intention was to get the audience to empathize with the poor man whose body is being thrown around like a rag doll. At the same time though, audience members were highly engaged in empathizing while leaning way back in plush chairs and munching on popcorn.
Is this really what empathy looks like? The occasional hand-to- mouth gasp? A slight jump in the big comfy chair? I think we can all agree to the negative. If a director would make a truly dedicated attempt to arouse empathetic feelings (I'm looking at you Tom Six, director of The Human Centipede), it would probably be too much of an emotionally draining experience to go to the movies. And while this particular bear-mauling scene is relatively extreme, it still treads the line between shocking and traumatizing very carefully.
This brings to mind an analogous phenomenon that occurs when listening to music. Anthropologists and psychologists have long debated about why humans are so obsessed with music. There is a fascinating evolutionary theory that proposes that natural selection has basically conditioned us to be musically inclined. Because hearing was such an important sense in a hunter-gatherer society, determining whether you would find food or become food, those who survived and passed on their genes were naturally the more aurally gifted. This would imply that our perception of music is based on primal instincts. Basically, when we listen to a pleasing song, the same kind of emotions are aroused as those you would feel hearing the footsteps of a predator in the Serengeti, albeit on a minimal level. Listening to music allows us to manipulate highly powerful emotions to our aesthetic benefit, in a safe environment.
Living in the iPod generation, you can't walk more than a couple feet in the city without passing by someone bouncing to the beat of their personal soundtrack. One gets the sense that not only do technological advances feed a human obsession with music, but a general need to engage in highly stimulating experiences, like this scene in The Revenant. But not too stimulating. As long as we know that we're safe and sound.
I think it is imperative that we keep this observation in the back of our minds, while at the same time, we should appreciate the wonders that technology has afforded us. I don't think it's such wild speculation to be worried about the possibility of a desensitization of society, caused by a constant bombardment of arousing sights and sounds. And here is where I think The Revenant actually did a marvelous job by actually showing us what we might be missing out on if we become desensitized from over-stimulation. The film has numerous instances where it fixates on a particular portrait of nature, such as a melting icicle, or a glimmering lake. And I specifically am not talking about something like a heart-melting glorious sunset. The little things are those that get significant screen time in this movie, that we are sure to miss in real life. The key to catching the subtle yet beautiful is simply by practicing being aware.
The famous standup comedian Louis C.K. poignantly describes a situation which I think is a useful example for this sort of practice:
“Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy. Like, in my lifetime the changes in the world have been incredible… Flying is the worst because people come back from flights and they tell you…a horror story…They’re like: “It was the worst day of my life. First of all, we didn’t board for twenty minutes, and then we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway…” Oh really, what happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?! You’re flying! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going: “Oh my God! Wow!” You’re flying! You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!”
In this hilarious, yet inspiring bit, C.K. strikes the perfect balance between engaging in modern life, and being blown away by what it has to offer at the same time. The remedy to the issue of desensitization isn't a hermetic and ascetic retreat, but to grab life by the horns in its fullness, never forgetting to pay attention to the details.
Now I'm aware that this may come off as hippie-dippie new-agey hogwash. It's also certainly legitimate to wonder what the benefit is in losing ourselves in the real world over losing ourselves in the technological. However, in my opinion, the benefits of "doing" awareness seem to be too far reaching to ignore. For example, it seems to make intuitive sense that if we make a concentrated effort to focus on the initially unremarkable, we will naturally pay closer attention to the needs of others, and the environment. On a religious level too, it isn't hard to see how adopting this mindset could be spiritually refreshing. Besides, it's that time of year right after the Jewish and secular holidays where things just seem too normal, and the grind kicks in at full gear again. It wouldn't hurt to try something new.