Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Nation of Whiners

How does culture influence the way we deal with trauma? That question animates a recent David Brooks column in the NY Times.

In it Brooks recounts his interviews with survivors of the recent Sichuan earthquake. A catastrophe of mammoth proportions, the quake took around 70,000 lives. Brooks wanted to know how they were dealing with the trauma and the grief.

Three months after the quake Brooks was shocked to discover that the villagers he interviewed, all of whom seem to have lost loved ones, were not suffering any visible emotional aftershocks. None seemed mired in grief; none was consumed by rage against the government or the gods. All of them seemed, to Brooks, in relatively good humor.

And yet, none of them had undergone psychotherapy. None had had the opportunity to give full expression to their feelings; none had used talk therapy to process the pain of trauma.

A lesser thinker than David Brooks might have denounced them for being in denial. To Brooks' credit he emphasized their resilience. They had thrown themselves into the task of rebuilding their towns and villages and were gaining sustenance from their community spirit.

Of course, we know nothing of their private psychic pain. All we can say is that they chose not to share it with an American journalist. They had not been taught by their culture how to turn personal tragedy into international psychodrama.

We do not know these people's feelings. We know that their way of dealing with trauma has little to do with the prescribed Western approach.

When Brooks asked them point blank how they were handling the pain of their losses, they seemed almost nonchalant. They said that they tried their best to put such thoughts out of their minds. Again, Brooks grants them the benefit of the doubt. He does not say that they are repressed or that we should be awaiting the return of the repressed.

A less savvy American would have showered these people with a disbelief bordering on contempt, and would have added a blanket imperative: Get thee to a therapist!

After all, if people can get over the worst kinds of human trauma without direct therapeutic intervention, how will therapists stay in business?

My only quibble with Brooks is his ending. There he compares the Chinese response with the inane histrionics of our reality show contestants. People who appear on these shows have an unusual talent for making themselves into public spectacles. Why compare a self-selected group of shameless self-promoters with a group of humble villagers in central China.

It would have been better to compare the trauma-processing behavior of these villagers to the way everyday New Yorkers responded to the attack on the World Trade Center.

Surely, America responded by mobilizing an army of psychotherapists. Do-good organizations ran multiple television commercials advertising the availability of these services.

And yet, as Dr. Sally Satel remarked in a NY Times op-ed New Yorkers showed an unexpected psychological resilience. The people who availed themselves of therapeutic services were mostly people who had done so before. The rest stood together as a community and worked quietly to put their lives back in order.

Obviously, there were differences in the way New Yorkers processed the 9/11 attacks. But that is likely because there is a fundamental difference between a natural disaster and a terrorist attack.

So Brooks was not quite on point when he compared the Chinese villagers to reality show contestants. Still, he was correct to note that Americans do complain a great deal. Perhaps not at a time of national emergency, but when it comes to everyday traumas, Americas have learned that the right way to respond is to complain, criticize, and psycho-dramatize.

This approach is a culturally-induced distortion of normal human behavior. Brooks does not say it but I suspect he would agree with me that the Chinese approach is more normal than our own therapeutically-sanctioned mode of seeking solace by expelling emotional gas.

The therapy culture has not given us a new and better way to deal with trauma. It has given us a fictional narrative that tells us how we should feel when we have suffered a trauma and what kind of drama we should live out in order to palliate its effects.

Does this new way work? Not really. It is surely less effective than the methods adopted by a group of humble villagers in central China.

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