Are today’s college students especially sensitive?

Debates over trigger warnings seem to indicate such a tendency, though it would be unfair to paint an entire generation of young adults as dainty, tremulous orchids. In a Tuesday New York Times column, David Brooks argues that—without stereotyping too much—a large number of today’s university-bound truly are not as resilient as their elders:

When I ask veteran college teachers and administrators to describe how college students have changed over the years, I often get an answer like this: “Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.”

That rings true to me. Today’s students are amazing, but they bathe one another in oceans of affirmation and praise, as if buttressing one another against some insecurity. Whatever one thinks of the campus protests, the desire for trigger warnings and safe spaces does seem to emanate from a place of emotional fragility.

Some have suggested that this fragility emanates from the excesses of helicopter parenting: a generation gone soft and thin-skinned from pampering. But Brooks thinks the trend has its roots in a deeper, more philosophical dimension:

[Emotional fragility] … is caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.

We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.

If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope.

On the one hand, this is a rather sweeping generalization.  Surely students can be sensitive and easily offended while still embracing some telos or larger purpose for their lives. And while the university tends to tiptoe around the personal, fostering various degrees of disillusionment and cynicism, it is also oftentimes ideological and optimistic to a fault. It all depends on the subject.

At the same time, Brooks’s argument—that a defining telos or purpose makes us strong and resilient—resonates with examples I’ve seen in my own life. My grandmother had a troubled childhood, but she responded to hardship with tenacity: she raised her siblings almost by herself, learning how to nurture safety, stability, and comfort in her wake. As she grew older, Grandma continued to foster these things in her own life, and in the lives of others. Her home was a place of security and stability, a “safe space” in which anyone could feel at home. It emanated comfort, beauty, and gentility. Hers was a story of overcoming—not just economic difficulty, but emotional and personal hardship.

Her life became focused around the cultivation and nurturing of family, and she fulfilled that vocation well until the very end. A tenacious love and loyalty directed her work ethic and private pursuits. It spilled into what she purchased, and into how she structured her schedule. Her telos was faith and family, and it showed in everything she did.

I recently read a book (review forthcoming) about a Cambodian Christian who survived the Khmer Rouge regime: barely eking out survival amidst the horror of prison camps, the devastating loss of almost his entire family, the constant shadow of starvation or violent death. What kept him going? A promised word, whispered in the lonely night: “I have a plan for you.” This was the telos that animated and inspired hope, despite all the challenges.

Christians are known for being tenacious despite persecution (and here I’m speaking not of cake-baking controversy or bathroom wars, but of torturing and beheading for one’s faith). Why is this? Because they have an animating purpose—a telos—that makes them, as Brooks writes, “strong like water”:

A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it’s short term while their natural shape is long term.

There are moments when they feel swallowed up by fear. They feel and live in the pain. But they work through it and their ardent yearning is still there, and they return to an altered wholeness.

Emotional fragility can result from a lack of confidence in who you are, or ignorance as to where you’re going. The one makes us debilitatingly vulnerable to the jabs and barbs of our world; the other leaves us despairing and forlorn when hostility tears away our societal, familial, or scholastic supports.

Christians have historically combatted these tendencies through a strong understanding of the self as loved and redeemed by God. The confidence of a Christian does not rely on moral superiority or self-righteousness—quite the contrary. The Christian views him or herself as already guilty of sin and insufficiency, but as loved, treasured, and redeemed anyway. So when the world accuses or makes fun or belittles, the Christian can stand firm. There’s no perfection in the self—but the self can still be perfectly loved. That gives stamina and endurance.

Christians also combat despair through believing they have an immortal purpose and end: communion with God. This gives a teleological direction to their life, as they seek to live in a manner worthy of this calling. It means that if their jobs dissipate, their families desert them, or their health fails, they still have a telos. There’s still a purpose worth pursuing.

That said—there’s another reason for emotional fragility that Brooks just doesn’t fully explain or acknowledge in his story: trauma. For some, emotional fragility is the result of a coddled childhood or lack of personal purpose. For others, it’s the result of a truly troubled past—one that fosters vulnerability and hurt in its wake. Not every member of the “orchid generation” is entitled or privileged. And for these people, our answers must lie beyond “tough it out,” or “make sure you have a telos.”

The solutions we present to such people must be different than the ones currently on offer. An elimination of controversial material or insensitive speech in the name of fostering a “safe space” surely won’t stretch or strengthen the modern student. It will, instead, prevent them from cultivating the necessary virtues and resiliency needed in the harsh and insensitive world that lies beyond the university.

I wish I could ask my grandmother how she conquered the fears and pains of her past. How did she build tenacity despite hardship? While it’s impossible to know what her step-by-step journey looked like, I do believe—through observation and reminiscence—that her faith did play a large role. It offered comfort and love, while also bolstering her and giving her a larger purpose to live for, to fight for.

The cultivation of confidence and common sense were also important: she had dignity and grace, a sense of poise and assuredness that lifted her above the petty and painful. She knew better than to take everything personally: she was more likely to say “oh for pitys’ sake” and move on than to reprimand or take offense.

As Brooks points out, the blows suffered by children in prior generations may have made them tougher—they may have also, however, made them more callous and susceptible to despair. Women like my grandmother, who emerged from the hardships of childhood with combined resiliency and delicacy, are quite rare. It’s hard to remain empathetic and open to others’ hardship, while still managing to steel ourselves against the suffering and disappointments this world is sure to throw at us. Compassionate courage: that’s what we need. But how do we foster it?

It is important to teach students to see the value they hold within themselves: to not consider their own worth too lightly (this is something I’ve explored in writing about sexual assault). But it’s also important to instill in them a love and charity that is willing to overlook and forgive: to show mercy, compassion, and care.

The university is a place where it’s all too easy to get focused on the self. Independent from family constraints or social responsibilities, young adults can throw themselves into personal concern and acclaim without thought. But if we strive to make our collegiate experiences about more than just the self, we can start fostering virtues—and start building a telos—that will give us hope and direction in days to come.

In order to do this, it’s important to seek holistic knowledge, not just a temporally satisfying GPA. College can all too easily become about vocational and career acclaim. And while it’s hard to deny the importance of these in times of economic hardship and instability, the sort of knowledge that will give us a telos extends beyond grade point averages and perfect exam scores. College should be about asking important philosophical questions, and finding the answers through diligent study and consideration. It should be about embarking on a quest for knowledge and discernment, striving to build a healthy understanding of the world—in all its horrors, as well as in all its goods. The university should, true enough, help us develop a vision of the true, the good, and the beautiful: but it should also confront the complexities of sin and suffering head-on, so that we can best consider how to fight them.

Second, it’s important that we do not become too solipsistic in our scholastic pursuits, but rather continue to dedicate time to fellowship and service: seeking to help others, whether through extracurricular pursuits, student life involvement, tutoring, or other forms of mentorship or voluntarism. These things will take our eyes off of ourselves, showing us that our own vulnerabilities or sensitivities may, in fact, be trivial things compared to the difficulties of others. It will give us perspective, and help us cultivate grace.

Finally, college is an ideal time to foster friendship—the sorts of friendships that last a lifetime, not just a semester. All too often, relationships during college fixate on the sexual. But there’s no better time to begin building a collective of soulmates who will foster accountability, camaraderie, and fellowship in days to come—helping provide the emotional and relational rapport necessary to direct and define your telos, helping remove some of that emotional vulnerability you’re likely to experience during college and beyond.

We don’t have to be a Corrie Ten Boom or Louis Zamperini to live tenaciously and well. But examples such as these show us that—even if we’re victims of intense trauma and hardship—it is possible to overcome. We need a telos to undergird our actions and pursuits: a purpose, a hope, that gives us strength despite difficulty. With this, emotional fragility is not eliminated, but instead finds its proper sphere.