An Ode to the Joys of the Unchanging in Our Midst
I am re-watching the entire narrative arc of Downton Abby as my summer viewing regimen: I am struck by the power of such reviewing as a lightening rod bringing the progress of my own journey to ground. This is a bit of a pattern for me: Once every even year I re-read the Bible and, on the odd year, I re-read either Anna Karenina or War & Peace. Why? Because these works do not change and I do.
When I first read Anna, I was as much in her thrall as either Vronsky or Karenin and had a serious crisis of faith when the ‘good’ man Karenin told their son his mother had died when all she’d done at that point was run off with the dashing military officer. The next time, I tried to summon the same anger at Karenin, but felt more empathy for his pain and consequently was less enamored of the seductive Vronksy. Another time, I realized I was quite peeved by Anna’s decision to chuck away her elegant life and small son so forcefully. While on still another reading, I learned I’d become a tremendous foe of suicide, regardless of the social stigma she faced.
This summer’s re-experiencing of Downton in one, month-long Odyssey of Amazon Prime-enabled nightly expeditions surfaces the same personal evolution. Where once Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess was a bit of upper class comedy relief, she is now a font a profound wisdom: “Never mistake a wish for a fact,” she tells me just at the moment I’m in danger of doing precisely that.
I wonder then if this mapping of our own path through the unchanging mile markers of pop culture helps explain ads that show adults sitting down to a session of Pong with Froot Loops in hand? The unparalleled resurgence of Twinkies, in a time we cannot imagine should be more hostile to its able-to-withstand Armageddon contents? The record-breaking box office for a franchise as creakily predictable as Jurassic World?
Elements of our culture which remain constant while we change help us tell our own story to ourselves. We live in a time at once social and yet isolating. Most of us live far afield from families and friends who might remember and recall for us “that time when…” we were perhaps not yet our current selves and more (or less) chock-a-block with possibility. I’m thinking about the wisdom to be gained by toggling between the furiously insistent now and those aspects of reality that can be trusted not to change. This is a powerful vein for brands to consider, beyond the more simple appeals of charming nostalgia.