“Depersonalization” is a psychiatric term that means having the sense that you are observing yourself from outside your body or that things around you are not real. It is essentially the feeling of being a detached observer of oneself, and it is extremely painful. People need to feel firmly rooted to a core identity in order to not experience profound anxiety or depression, or both.
America may be adrift in depersonalization at this moment in our history. Our politics are so polarized, our boundaries so porous, our elections in so much doubt, our sense of manifest destiny to accomplish anything so anemic that Americans, in wholesale fashion, risk being shaken loose of any true national identity and left to observe their nation and their own citizenship “from outside the body politic,” as though they are “not real.” This can cause mass anxiety and mass depression and desperation. The symptoms can be epidemic mental illness (which is present in America), epidemic suicide (which is present in America), epidemic drug addiction (which is present in America), and epidemic violence (which is present in America).
How did this happen? I would argue that self-reflection as a nation tilted into self-reproach, then self-hatred, then hatred for one another. We allowed ourselves to abide apologies for the personality of our country and the character of our country and the history of our country. That then set loose an internal witch hunt for those groups—men, women, old, young, rich, poor, white, black, east coast, west coast—who were the ones responsible for our supposed failures.
Without the momentum of communal pride and interpersonal good will as part of the fuel for the “patriotic personhood” of a country, national depersonalization can set in. It has. We are looking at America as though from outside America. For many, many Americans—in the tens or hundreds of millions—national identity is no more.
Those who are citizens of America, but who no longer feel particularly American and who don’t know what it would even mean to feel particularly American, are, arguably, now in the majority. That is a perilous moment for a nation. It threatens the nation with extinction.
What might be a way back? Surely, an external threat can galvanize an internal sense of self. Being threatened with the loss of freedom from an external aggressor could remind us who we are. Something even worse than the Covid pandemic could do it, as Americans would seek to tap into the huge creative, economic, and scientific engines that comprise elements of our soul. But who wants to be reminded that we exist through such suffering?
It would be better, of course, to re-visit and re-embrace American ideals by seeing external threats on the horizon long before we have to meet them head on and gearing up to thrive in spit of them. Gearing up might look like an equivalent of the Manhattan Project, only targeting the destruction of newly emerging viruses. Gearing up might look like the recognition that we have enemies on the face of the earth who want to do away with our national identity in order to attempt to forcibly impose their own. It might look like wrestling, in earnest, with the epidemics of depression and drugs and violence in our country and committing to truly turning them around.
From this pain, we can and we must realize—once, again—our power. The alternative is the darkness we have met with before, but should not need to meet again.