On August 10th, 2023, a fascinating opinion piece was published in the New York Times titled, “Hey America, Grow Up,” written by David Brooks. In this piece, Brooks deconstructs America’s trauma-based therapeutic culture that began emerging in our post-World War II society and bloomed to completion in the late 2000’s. There are a lot of controversial and thought-provoking points laid out in this piece and I wanted to give my own take on some of the ideas that Brooks brings to the table here.
Brooks begins with the simple idea that in modern therapeutic culture, people’s ideas of self-worth stem from how pleased they feel with themselves and how equally that feeling is mirrored by those around them. Perhaps the idea is not so simple when placed in these terms, but I would be remiss if I tried to deny that the modern idea of self-worth is heavily influenced by the worth that others place on us; whether that be the worth we have that is implied from our job, our level of education, apparent social status, and so on. However, Brooks’ piece here takes a unique angle to getting beyond this bumbling, shallow idea of self worth that has been wrought upon our society by hyper-gender roles and social media stuffing unique culture and individuality into a cramped, interconnected, global village.
To kickstart his musings, Brooks turns to writings by Christopher Lasch from 1979 that are quite prevalent to this day. He quotes an excerpt from Lasch’s book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” that essentially deploys the idea that the modern idea of self-worth breeds narcissism. It only takes a couple months of questing for self-worth before our human nature latches onto the ingenuity of comparison to others, which has been known to creep to the front of one’s mind and thieve the joy they so desperately set out for in the first place.
With that futile catch-22 of self improvement established, Brooks allows us to go full steam ahead into this new era of trauma. Brooks essentially believes that trauma has defined the new generations, simply due to how widely used the word has become. Brooks writes,
“Once the word ‘trauma’ referred to brutal physical wounding one might endure in war or through abuse. But usage of the word was spread so that it was applied to a range of upsetting circumstances.”
I do believe that this worldwide acceptance of fairly normal human experiences as “trauma,” has done more harm than good for the generation currently taking up the reins of adulthood, especially after being raised in an era of hyper-connectivity and a tidal wave of mostly irrelevant and redundant information careening towards them at every waking moment. I often see common trials and tribulation of the average introvert being aggrandized and rebranded as childhood trauma. The reality is that people log onto social media and believe their trauma is infinitely more relevant and disarming than anyone else’s.
With that being said, I believe that Brooks delivered this idea in his opinion piece in a rather tone-deaf nature. He opts to completely neglect the centuries of generational trauma that our country is built off of that has been malleated and tweaked over the years to keep the poor and traumatized in an endless cycle of trauma. In addition to that, Brooks neglects to acknowledge the infantilization of newer generations due to the capitalist machine. Brooks points out the coddled nature of the newer generations and defines the most mature of their ranks as, “laying low, just trying to get through the day.” This implication from Brooks essentially comes off as “The workers who aren’t complaining about their low pay and high hours are mature rather than unconscious of the imbalance of wealth and work in our modern society.” With the way this country has progressed thus far, young adults entering the workforce are severely held down in opportunity due to the hierarchy of power that is already solidified in our society. In turn, this debilitates psyches and self-image, keeping the oppressed in the throes of systemic misfortune and the working class in a blinded, newfound sense of trauma that envelopes their definition of themselves.
With this widely recognized switch in the definition of trauma, it would be hard to pinpoint where exactly we went astray and seemingly everyone was ridden with life altering traumatic experiences. This phenomenon has gone so far that Brooks concludes,
“For many people, trauma became their source of identity. People began defining themselves by the way they’ve been hurt.”
After pondering this for quite some time, I came to the conclusion that this mirrors the pipeline of self-discovery/self-help to narcissism and insecurity in an equally alarming manner. We navigate a raucous, swirling tide of generational trauma every day we exist and benefit from the opportunities of America, yet the general public is so caught up in their own distress from the multitude of other class-differential niches of trauma that we’ve all become convinced we are the most important, yet futile, cases of mental distress to be found.
I do not agree with the tone change that Brooks delved into in the second half of this article. When he splits a line between the apparently immature voices who make up the loudest of society and the “mature,” quiet hard workers of society, he writes,
“People on all sides genuinely come to believe they are powerless, unwilling to assume any responsibility for their plight - another classic symptom of immaturity.”
This quote almost comes off as Brooks contradicting himself. As he delves into the mental barrier between the mature and the immature of society he futily ends up blaming them of the same fault of not taking responsibility for their mental plight.
Brooks resolves his opinion piece for The New York Times with a light call to action to miserable Americans to stand steadfast in the face of discomfort and testing nature of humanity and opt to endure these tribulations with the steadfast resolve of the emotionally mature. This is certainly a unique and well-written dive into the mental horrors offered to new generations raised in the digital age, yet it is one that lacks a certain sense of awareness. It paints a picture of America as a capitalist utopia that has provided all of its “newly,” traumatized residents with a clear path to emotional and financial maturity and success; one that is, in reality, riddled with potholes and doubt, regardless of who you are.
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