We live, or so we’re constantly informed, in the era of the Sensitive Snowflake, the twentysomething university student who can’t hear a vaguely challenging opinion without melting into a puddle of panic. I know I’m supposed to dismiss this notion as a rightwing invention, but my reading of the evidence – for example, in the recent book The Coddling Of The American Mind – is that it’s at least partly true. (Although not confined to the left, as often claimed: there are few clearer signs of someone utterly controlled by their emotions than the slogan “facts don’t care about your feelings” in their Twitter bio.) At this point, there are simply too many tales of young people demanding protection from the discomfort of other viewpoints to resist the conclusion that what they really need, in most cases, is to grow a thicker skin.
And yet thick skin has its issues, too. One of the most popular forms of self-help, in recent years, has been aimed at developing a kind of inner toughness – a theme that unites the philosophy of Stoicism, some manifestations of Buddhism, Jordan Peterson’s exhortation to raise your children “strong not safe”, books on becoming “mentally strong”, and more. But as the philosopher Todd May points out, there’s something about all this that smacks of emotional “invulnerabilism”, of the idea that “we might extricate ourselves from the world’s contingencies so that they do not affect us”. The ancient Stoics praised the philosopher Anaxagoras for his reported response to his son’s death: “I always knew that my child was a mortal.” Yet surely that’s a totally inhuman reaction. I have no clue how I’d react to such an excruciating event; but speaking more generally, a meaningful life entails feeling pain, not ensuring you never do.
Seen this way, the sensitive student and the thick-skinned invulnerabilist start to look strangely similar. One seeks to avoid circumstances that might provoke feelings of distress; the other seeks to avoid feeling distress, whatever the circumstances. The obvious third alternative is that it might be possible to feel the distress, without it destroying you. By all means use Stoicism or meditation to take the edge off things, May argues, but let go of the goal of eliminating suffering entirely. “Most of us want to feel caught up in the world,” he writes. “We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about, involved with them, taken up by them. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability.” A life in which nothing could hurt would be one in which nothing could matter.
One useful thought comes from the psychologist Harriet Lerner, in an interview with New York magazine, who suggests abandoning the “thick skin” metaphor for a different one. “I picture every person as standing on a platform of self-worth,” she says. If it’s broad and strong – if you’re part of a rich network of relationships, if you have multiple sources of self-esteem, and so on – then bad things will still feel bad, but in a different context. Resilience of this sort can accommodate pain, so you needn’t obsessively avoid its causes, nor squelch it down inside. You can be OK, even when you’re not OK .
Listen to this
Philosopher Todd May makes the case for “vulnerabilism” in his book A Fragile Life and in an episode of the podcast This Is Not A Pipe