Learning to be Vulnerable As a Species

A highly respected former sports reporter turned editorial commentator for The New York Times, Joe Nocera, just asked the question, “Should kids play football?” And the answer wasn’t clear.

The evidence is mounting for the number of routine concussions sustained in professional football, and their consequences of severe memory loss, confusion and, even, death among aging players. The issue is obviously relevant for college football as well. And there is just as much violence in professional hockey and other contact sports such as boxing. So maybe kids should not get started on this pathway to greater and greater risk. (See, “Should Kids Play Football?”)

The issue is getting attention now for legal and economic reasons. According to John Kircher, a law professor who specializes in the insurance industry: “The handwriting is on the wall, there’s no question . . . . Insurers will look at the dangers and might look at increasing premiums, and the insurers and the insured will ask whether the game is worth a candle.” (See, “Concussion Liability Costs May Rise, and Not Just for N.F.L.”)

This comes at a time when many forms of violence we used to routinely accept are being critically scrutinized. We know now that war produces high levels of PTSD among soldiers in combat. WWI brought attention to “shell shock,” but such traumatic injuries are far more widespread than previously thought, and they are not confined to soldiers in the direct line of battle. Echoing Joe Nocera, we might also ask: “Should people engage in battle?”

Workers in heavy industry and mining are also subject to high levels of injury. And then there is the damage that comes from exposure to toxic chemicals. Even office workers, sitting a their desks, can suffer damage to their spines.

And we are learning that the mind is fragile as well, not just the body and the brain. Psychological trauma stemming from abuse, neglect or repeated verbal threats don’t show up as scars and bruises, but they do considerable and often irremediable damage. And then there is the trauma of witnessing such shootings as just occurred in Newtown. No doubt those who were there will be affected for the rest of their lives. As a species we are turning out to be far more delicate and vulnerable than we had thought..

Are we getting weaker — or are we simply more aware? Earlier cultures tended to think that their “heroic” ancestors were stronger and more capable of great feats of endurance than they themselves. Those mythic memories were probably constructed. But why, then, did we not notice these limitations before?

Clearly, we did not want to know. Our self-image is constantly “improved” by unconscious tendencies to protect self-esteem. Moreover, we are members of a highly competitive society, and have taken pride in being the dominant species on the planet. But as we learn more about our limitations, we can no longer sustain the posturing of strength and invulnerability we have promoted up to now.

We have to adapt to a softer, weaker self-image, one that emphasizes the strength that comes from intelligence, thoughtfulness and cooperation. To be sure, there will still be heroes among us, but the price we have to pay for violence is mounting.