We Need a Moratorium on #NYTough

Grit is all of New York’s shared experience–the social glue that transcends class, ethnicity, and borough of origin.

But I, for one, am growing tired of the teflon paradigm. Alienated and exhausted from 20+ years of tough guy adjectives, I’ve reached the end of my rope. Yes, New Yorkers are #strong and New Yorkers are #tough.

But New Yorkers are human beings and that means we are other things too.

I spent 48 hours this week working from the Financial District–a dramatically different place after COVID. I was often alone on my midday walks and this led me to question the emotional utility of proclaiming #NYTough qualities again and again and again.

Why? Partly because of the law of diminishing returns: overuse has led to a weakening of its power.

But more importantly, I’m troubled by the substance. Toughness may be the armor we don but pain is the path we tread. One cannot separate the two and come up with a slogan for the ages. And so, #NYTough feels empty because it fails to recognize the foundational source of our strength: #NYPain.

Taking in a largely deserted Financial District for the first time, something I’ve never seen in my 20 years in New York, I was struck by the radically different quality radiating from Wall Street’s buildings and sidewalks.

#Fragile best describes it. Achingly fragile, in fact.

This time when I walked down Wall Street, instead of thinking of the New York Stock Exchange, I thought of actual New Yorkers; you and me, still sheepish after the compounded pain of multiple tragedies.

In the evenings, I gazed down from the elevated terrace of my hotel at the wound inflicted on 9/11. What’s been built in the space left from the World Trade Center’s destruction is beautiful because it tells the whole story. The Memorial is a poignant symbol of gaping loss and the Freedom Tower embodies human resilience.

I thought about how our collective understanding of pain and trauma has advanced in the years since 9/11. Awareness of grievous harm done to women, Black people and marginalized communities in general has told us not to approach pain with a fatherly slap on the back. In the language of trauma, an admonition to “stay STRONG!” is problematic; it fails to confer comfort and risks further suffering with the implication that sadness, depression and anxiety are human experiences best crushed by blunt force.

Hopefully movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have taught us some humility with the knowledge that meaningful comfort involves stepping into another’s loss, bearing witness to their grief and providing companionship in such space.

Words like “weak”, “soft”, and their counterparts “strong” and “tough” do not belong here. They negate, oversimplify, and dismiss when our job is to hear, affirm and accept.

I believe New York possesses all the strength it needs to rise back up: it’s always been there and always will be.

I also know where it comes from. That pain is long overdue for some air time.

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