David Brooks has noted that Millennials, while more accomplished, are more “emotionally fragile” than previous generations. He is backed up by this article which includes reports from Psychology Today, that “the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”
This fits with my experience. People my age have battled spiraling depression and anxiety since early adolescence or before. I do agree with Brooks that it’s in large part because many of us lack deep convictions and a narrative about what is really meaningful.
In his book, “The Road to Character,” he identifies inside everyone an “Adam I” and an “Adam II.” Adam I is the external person, the face we show to the world, the bearer of “resume virtues,” as he puts it. Adam II is the internal person, the inner compass of wisdom, maturity and kindness or of fragility, shallowness and self-righteousness. Adam II is bearer of the “eulogy virtues.” Brooks says and I agree that the great struggle of being a good person is to bring these two aspects of ourselves together.
I would like to introduce a contributing factor that Brooks does not explore: the saturation of TV, movies and visual media in our lives. In my (limited) experience, development of the Adam II, the inner person, relies on refining our emotional processing of external realities. Yet, in our culture, we almost lack entirely a vocabulary to express this inner thought process and dialogue. Our language is much better suited to the roles of Adam I – naming nouns, like rocks and buildings, and discussing clear, observable markers of achievement such as job titles and salaries. If our words have trouble explaining Adam II, our visual mediums struggle even more and this contributes to the difficulty we have in developing Adam II.
In mediums such as TV shows and films where characters hash out their differences or conquer adventures in visual theatrics, there is almost no method for depicting the inner-transformations that go on in order to develop that wisdom and maturity that characterizes Adam II. Even writers, artists of the silent medium, today criticize older models of novel-writing that spent paragraphs and paragraphs detailing a character’s motivation. In today’s sitcoms or romantic comedies, a character experiencing emotional distress almost always runs away and pouts–be it a child nervous before a performance or a woman scorned. Then, the father, teacher or boyfriend character seeks out the distressed child or girlfriend, listens patiently, gets passed the walls and offers reassurance. This is the model of any TeenDisney or Jude Apatow movie.
From an artistic standpoint, it makes sense. When two characters interact, there is something to display on the screen. When they speak to one another, their thoughts and emotions can be revealed. Dialogue is the Holy Grail of good story-telling.
But when this example permeates our lives, we encounter a problem: it is not realistic. These portrayals set-up the expectation that there will always be a kind mentor to rescue us from our emotional distress or at least help us to process it. But in real life, the mature person must often process her own emotions rather than expect others to do it for her. (It’s not that we can never ask for help, but that sometimes we can do it ourselves and we grow when we try).
When our real-life father, teacher and boyfriend (or opposite sex) figures do not always deliver the expected emotional rescue, we are often left distraught, without options–hence the spiral of depression and anxiety. The Washington Post describes the story of Amy, a 30-year-old in therapy who suffered break-downs in college “unable to do laundry and often stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to complete homework because she didn’t know how to manage her time without her parents’ keeping track of her schedule.” We have few models for healthy self-reliance and care in our cultural models of TV and film. It’s not as simple as pointing the finger at mom and dad, though. The issue is more pervasive. If TV and movies are our cultural models, and I think they are, there are no cultural models even to guide parents for effective development of Adam II, of healthy maturation or emotional processing.
So our very mediums of cultural expression may themselves make it nearly impossible to even realize the existence of our inner Adam IIs. This void is why someone as outwardly successful as the most decorated Olympian ever, Michael Phelps, could slip into deep depression. When Adam I sprints ahead of Adam II in our personal development, we sense the mismatch and it is highly distressing. Brooks is right then, that like Phelps was, we Millennials are more accomplished than ever as Adam Is, but also more emotionally fragile in our under-realized Adam IIs.
There is so little cultural acknowledgement of Adam II, that the divide grows almost incessantly–until life experience demands that we level up and respond to it.
What do you think? Does Brooks label the problem accurately with his descriptions of the Adam I and Adam II inside us all? Does the medium of TV necessarily vanquish portrayals of inner-growth? Can you think of an example in film where the character had an inner-transformation without heaps of dialogue to help it along?