Children on the Set! A Short Psychoanalysis of Train Collisions, Debt Debates and Everything Else That’s Driving the Rest of Us Crazy
Those of you who have been following the show in Washington this month may now be glued to your sofas in a horrified stupor, unable to process the egocentric madness in Congress that could spark yet another global economic crisis. Or, perhaps you’re just severely ticked off that your stocks are tanking. Across the pond in China, the crowd can’t sit still following last Saturday’s high speed bullet train collision in the Eastern province of Zhejiang, killing at least 39 people and injuring nearly 200 others. While Beijing authorities initially blamed the accident on a freak lightning bolt, the Railway Ministry has since murmured something about a man-made engineering error, but you really have to clean your ears well to hear them.
In the capital cities of the two most influential nations in the world, this type of production is a true favorite. Political theatre at its finest, there are the enigmatic and omnipotent villains, intensely blamed and yet never clearly defined. The rising action, with all its twists and turns, will have you transfixed right up to the climax, which clings to the precipice of misfortune or maybe, just maybe, redemption. And then, of course, there is the Great Denouement- what we often refer to as reality- of lives and livelihoods lost, of angered voices stilled. As much as the performance may suck us in, these tragedies are never about us- or our families, our health, our jobs, our safety, our bank accounts, our futures. And whether the stage is in Beijing or Washington, you can’t guarantee that we as the ticket holding audience will get our money’s worth. But, before you fill your bags with tomatoes, let’s clear up something: these actors, like any actor, are not evil aliens from a distant fiery planet. They are human beings. And like most human beings, they have good intentions based on a narrow and self-interested lens.
Say you’re an American spectator in China. After paying close attention to the actors, one of the first traits you may notice is that they almost never admit to their mistakes, even if that mistake has cost hundreds of lives. An admission of error would mean loss of face and confirmation of failure, which would be a sin against the parents and teachers who fully believed that their little stars would grow up to be the best in the world. One can assume then that those who rise to the top of the billing as government officials are the ones who have been pushed the most, who have trained the hardest, and who understand well what an incredible burden it is to be perfect all the time. For a character study, I recommend scanning the comment sections of articles pertaining to Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where you will find a fair number of high-achieving Chinese who convey that they are psychically wounded and unable to forge true bonds.
Similarly, a Chinese ticket-holder in America might notice how aggressive and flamboyant the actors are, placing style over substance much of the time. “Why does everyone need to be so individualistic?” the Chinese viewer may wonder. Just as perfection in the Chinese family is valued, many American tots are weaned on tough love and power from a very young age, with the struggle to be seen and heard commencing upon exit from the womb. The stage is distinctly USA, where divorce rates hover around 50 percent, child abuse is rampant, and drug and alcohol addiction seem to be the norm. But, no one needs to write a book on the outcomes of American-style parenting- the tabloids and headlines do a fine job already. Did you hear the news that Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are partying together again? And how many shootings in the US was there this week?
So, what if the roles were reversed? What if the troupe in D.C. had to address the high-speed bullet train collision (if the US actually had a high-speed bullet train) while those in Beijing tackled the debt debates (if China actually had these financial problems)? My guess is that China would never allow a potential default, instead collectively deciding behind closed doors to raise the debt ceiling far before the issue ever became public enough to impact national confidence. As for a train crash scenario in the US, it would have been handled in a manner that conveyed sensitivity and investigative thoroughness while fully acknowledging public grief. China and America have a lot to learn from one another.
We all grow out of childhood, but the personalities constructed during these impressionable years and the masks we wear thereafter are really what shape the “system” that we all tend to point our fingers at. And so, as I’ve watched the tear-jerkers in Beijing and Washington this month, I’ve focused not on the systemic problems themselves, but on the people behind them.
I watched Speaker of the House, John Boehner- the second eldest in a blue-collar family of eleven children who had to work his butt off from a very young age in order to make something of himself- tell his fellow conservatives, “get your ass in line!” I watched President Obama- a precocious third-culture kid from an intellectual, single-parent home- plead for assistance from his supporters. And then, I “watched” the officials from Beijing as they expressed calm power from behind a wall of faceless authority- behavior ingrained in the culture far before the Forbidden Palace was conceived. From this, I’ve concluded that the finale of any tragedy like the two I’m referring to are not dependent on what we the audience wants, but what they- the actors- are capable of showing us.
When the curtain falls, we are all just people. From a psychological standpoint, this means that our personality traits are pretty predictive by the time we’re out of diapers and have quit sucking our thumbs. Philosophically, it could also mean that, no matter what our station in life, we operate with our own interests in mind. Thankfully, humanity cannot be distilled down to simple philosophical and psychological perspectives. Our species is far too valuable, complex, and evolving. When we begin to design systems that serve humankind by internalizing the common bonds between all of us and appreciating what we can learn from one another, we will be on the right track. For the time being, maybe we should get to know the children we once were by playing nice, showing kindness, and opening ourselves up once again to all the wonders and possibilities of our world and each other.