One of the reasons John Patrick Shanley’s fine play Doubt is an even better movie is that when we saw it onstage, in 2004, life felt pretty fab—the economy rocking, Wall Street booming, real estate bubbling. And so back then, the priest’s opening sermon about coping with the collective fear and confusion after JFK’s assassination played as a period piece. Whereas in the new movie, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s 1964 Father Flynn could be talking about us, here in the scary, confusing winter of 2008: “People sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow beings was your despair. It was a public experience, shared by everyone in our society. It was awful, but we were in it together!”
As the economic sky seems to be falling, and we each and all hunker down to survive as best we can, I think New Yorkers really do and will derive some consolation from our very physical togetherness. The terror, I think, is mitigated by the fact that we live in crowds, packed into apartment buildings and shoulder to shoulder every day on the streets and in the subways. Shanley’s common bond of despair—or, anyhow, of acute uncertainty and fear—is easier to feel when you’re not driving alone to and from some isolated exurban homestead.
Plus, we are by our nature armored to survive adversity. We choose to live in this difficult place, subjecting ourselves to levels of inconvenience and harshness and expense that Americans elsewhere consider insane. New Yorkers self-select for pluck and toughness, since life in the city in the best of times can amount to a kind of Outward Bound experience. We’ve also chosen to live in a place that has serious seasons, weeks on end each year of cold and slush or hideous heat, rather than in some perpetually balmy Laguna Del This or Playa Del That; just as February makes us savor June all the more, imagine how much more you’ll appreciate 2011 after you’ve survived 2009.
Of course, it’s possible that what we’re about to experience is so unprecedented that the city and nation are heading into some fresh hell that will effectively finish us off. But probably not. For two centuries, New York has endured catastrophe every twenty years or so, and each time come out bigger and stronger. Even leaving aside the epidemics that routinely killed 1 or 2 or even 4 percent of New Yorkers in a few months’ time, or the terrible holocausts (like the two-day fire in 1835 that destroyed 700 buildings, and in turn bankrupted 23 of the city’s 26 fire-insurance companies), Wall Street has been the epicenter of national economic disaster over and over and over again.
In the century preceding the Great Depression, it was New York moneymen who more or less caused the panics of 1907 (provoked by a stock-market crash), 1893 (ditto, plus a credit crisis), 1873 (a financial firm bankrupted by reckless speculation, a market crash, and chaos), 1857 (ditto), and 1837 (ditto, plus a real-estate collapse). Depressions or severe recessions followed each unraveling, which were in turn followed by an extended period of robust capitalist growth and gaiety in New York City.
In other words, New Yorkers are preternaturally resilient. And that’s not just romantic, self-flattering I [Heart] NY bullshit. Psychologists define a resilient person as one who after experiencing a trauma has one or no symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder. A Columbia study of New Yorkers a few years ago found that 65 percent of us were certifiably resilient following 9/11—as were more than half the people who’d actually been in the Trade Center buildings during the attacks. But the study’s finding I love best describes what kinds of 9/11 survivors were least affected, the quickest to bounce back, the most resilient: the so-called self-enhancers. They, according to the psychology professor who ran the study, “are somewhat grandiose. They are preoccupied with themselves, they score high on measures of narcissism, and the research shows pretty clearly that they are annoying to be around.” In other words … New Yorkers! Cue the Gloria Gaynor.