When a candidate for vice president of the United States, the most powerful country on earth, screeches into a debate camera about the panic of not knowing where she might get her next roll of toilet paper, it should give us pause. Not only is it an indictment of her intellectual depth, but it also regrettably speaks to a new mentality in our country that has been on dismaying display in the past eight months.
In 2004, Psychology Today published an article that was more prophetic than most people would have wanted to believe then. Entitled “A Nation of Wimps,” it described serious concerns of the editor-in-chief of the publication, Hara Estroff Marano, on which she later expanded in her 2008 book, “A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.”
In her article, Marano warned that young people were growing up anxious and timid because of having been over-directed by their parents all the way to and even through college. A university psychologist friend of mine summed it up succinctly when he explained that the waiting list at the counseling center was filled two weeks into the fall semester because of “poor coping skills.”
Marano’s concerns resonated with me because my university colleagues and I were witnessing alarming spikes in students’ anxiety, depression, binge drinking, and general emotional insecurity. Colleges and universities all over the country began to beef up their counseling center budgets to hire as many additional psychologists and psychiatrists as they could afford. “Helicopter parenting” and its unintended consequences played out for us every day.
This emotional fragility is manifesting again, 16 years later, with COVID-19. Not only have millions of people had what some would call extreme personal reactions—and the media’s hysteria has certainly fed the fear—but the equally disturbing advent of helicopter governing has been front and center.
Overzealous governors and mayors have decided they must protect us from ourselves, and we have complied. Businesses have been destroyed, churches closed, and public gatherings virtually eliminated, but we have said, “OK, whatever you say.” The justification for the controls? We must be safe.
Being safe has suddenly become the criterion by which we judge every action in our lives. “Your safety is our top priority,” touts almost every company in every television commercial throughout the day and night. “Your pizza is not touched between the 450-degree oven and its arrival at your door.” What did they do before, make handprints in the sauce?
Other companies sympathetically proclaim, “We understand that this is the new normal, and we are here to help you.” Clothing companies even have new lines of fall and winter fashion masks.
“But one of the candidates for vice president admits she was panicked, too!” Exactly, which speaks volumes.
Look at what we are teaching our children. Touching another human being is dangerous. Grandmother might get sick if you hug her. Barriers must be erected everywhere you go, from the Plexiglas shields in the classrooms and at the grocery checkout, not to mention the vice-presidential debate stage, and school food must be prepackaged and hermetically sealed.
Field trips, assemblies, and shared spaces are discouraged, and college athletes, probably the healthiest people on the planet during their playing years, must wear a mask on the sideline, take it off when they go onto the field (except in Michigan and California, of course), and then push the mask back up when they return to the sidelines. It’s a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
This is job security for psychiatrists. In the name of being safe, we are instilling fear in children and adults that might take years to overcome. Children have been surrounded by grown-ups in dehumanizing face coverings, cowering in their homes with Lysol in hand and toilet paper hoarded. Hugs and handshakes and daring to break the six-foot barrier are taboo because, as everyone insists, we must be safe.
If there were ever a country and a people whose DNA demanded that we face dangers courageously and even daringly, it is the United States and American citizens. Being safe has never been our top priority. Exploring and inventing and conquering challenges have been what make us tick, at least until now.
You can be and do anything you want! The sky is the limit! Obstacle? What obstacle? Overcoming obstacles is what we do. Now, though, we must slam on the brakes because there might be dangers lurking.
Certainly, no one advocates recklessness. We always do what we can to protect the truly vulnerable in emergencies. We wear seat belts because they have been proven to provide protection in a crash. Law enforcement officers wear bulletproof vests for when they are put into life-threatening situations. Swimming pools have lifeguards to watch those in deep water. Yet we don’t fill up the pools with cement because someone might drown.
The key today is that the definition of recklessness has changed, possibly forever. What used to be normal life is now filled with things to be avoided at all costs. Fear has taken over.
How insulting is it that so-called experts in the government think they must explain the obvious to us? Wash your hands. Clean your house. If you think you’re sick, stay home. (Heck, even if you’re not sick, stay home.) Fret over whether you are 6 feet or 4 feet or 11 ½ feet away from friends and colleagues and strangers who might be walking in the wrong direction down the grocery aisle.
There are right and wrong ways to walk down an aisle? The micromanagement is breathtaking, but it’s supposedly worth it because we’ve got to be safe.
Helicopter parents always had good intentions. They protected because they loved, even though excessive protection was not the best prescription for their children’s wellbeing. Yet helicopter governing has nothing to do with good intentions. Restrictions on every aspect of our lives do not make for well-adjusted, self-governing people — which is probably exactly the point.
Eliminating all risks means eliminating the fullness of life. If our daily focus is on not dying, or even on not getting sick, what kind of life can we enjoy? Christians know that one of Jesus’ most frequent admonitions was “Do not fear.” Children, especially, need to be reassured of this.
Mental health professionals know that conquering fear is critical for healthy emotional growth. The goal is not to be safe at all times but to be able to handle life’s inevitable challenges when we face them.
This new idolatry and its resulting distress have caused us to suddenly buckle to those who insist they are interested only in our welfare. Why we have turned over our most basic decision-making abilities is a head-scratcher, and it is terribly alarming.
The current paralysis in our country certainly does not bode well for our continuing to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. Perhaps the next eye-opening book will be “A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Governing.”