Which brings us to Bruce Jenner. One of the hands that God or evolution has dealt us is our sex. And, in most wisdom traditions, accepting who you are is a huge step on the road to happiness. The ancient Greeks inscribed “Know thyself” on the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Ten Commandments advise us not to envy what others have but we don’t. Buddhism teaches that it is the desire to be other than what we are that causes suffering. Taoism tells us that the way to inner peace is to become one with the natural order of things. And much more recently, Freud recommended extensive self-examination, and not superficial transformations of one’s body parts, as the path to psychological equilibrium. But the ideology of the self-created individual stands in stark opposition to all of those traditions: rather than understanding and accepting who we are, our only real problem is that reactionary others stand in the way of our transforming ourselves into whatever we imagine we might be instead.
Now, I have no wish to outlaw sex-change operations. And when a mature adult like Jenner decides to undergo such a process, I wish him the best, although I suspect that reading Dante, or Buddha or Freud or Jung, would have done more for him than the course he has chosen. But to hold him up as a “hero,” and to suggest he is an exemplar for “troubled youth struggling with their identity” (as I recently saw argued on social media), is a triumph of ideology over any concern for the well-being of actual people.
For the human animal, the teen years are a difficult time, as new demands of adult responsibility combine with surging hormones to buffet the individual’s psyche this way and that. To suggest to individuals going through such a tempest that the route to calm weather is as simple as altering one’s genitals is a cruel joke. I suggest that the number of teens for whom their primary psychological problem is that they have a penis instead of a vagina, or vice-versa, is very close to zero. But many struggling teens—and how few teens aren’t struggling in some way?—will feel the lure of this easy answer, especially when they are told that they will be “heroes” if they act on the idea.