It's hard to believe, but we are already almost three months into a new year. Did you make any resolutions for 2016? If so, you're not alone: each time the calendar flips from December 31st to January 1st, millions of us practice the art of self-improvement: we vow to lose weight, to stop smoking, to get control of our finances once and for all. We do it because it feels good to start fresh and make a commitment to bettering ourselves. Maybe we don't always stick to these resolutions the entire year with the same enthusiasm we started with, but the impulse to improve ourselves is well-intentioned. And, importantly, in the developed world, the culture of self-help is inextricably interwoven into our culture.
Ideas of self-help and introspection have been around for thousands of years, and in the last few hundred, the self-help industry has ballooned into a $10 billion per year behemoth that promises that with the right amounts of hard work, determination, and bootstrap-pulling, we can each overcome our personal demons, no matter how insurmountable they seem. There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to be the best we can be; our world would be much different without people who had the courage to believe in their own potential, even when nobody else did. Focusing solely on introspection and self-improvement, however, can come at a huge price. It is vital that we take a look at those among us we might be inclined to deem different and even dangerous, and rethink how we treat them. That's why we guide the students in our programming at Children Mending Hearts to think deeply about how others feel, no matter how different they might seem from us. Put more simply, we teach empathy, and though it has become a buzzword that gets thrown around casually, most people don't understand what a crucially important skill it is, and that we absolutely must be developing it in our youth every single day.
Trusting Our Institutions to Care for the "Other"
Our programming at CMH focuses on foreign countries; each semester, we teach our students about the history, culture and struggles of Haiti, Japan, and Kenya, giving them insight into the lives of children just like them, which creates global awareness, encourages social activism and helps foster empathy. We want them to turn on the news and feel compassion for any humans they see suffering, regardless of perceived differences. And though we highlight people in foreign countries, we know that these lessons of empathy are also applicable right here at home - because the harsh reality is, it can be just as easy to overlook our friends and neighbors as it is to discount those who are thousands of miles away.
One of the of the benefits of living in a highly developed nation is that there is infrastructure in place to take care of our basic needs: we have an educational system for the cultivation of a well-informed populace, welfare programs to help those who are struggling to make ends meet, a health care system for when we are sick, armed forces to protect our national security, and a criminal justice system designed to punish those who violate the law. In general, we trust that these institutions are operating the way they should and in our best interest. We feel safer with criminals in prison. They've done something bad, and belong there. It hurts to see people living in the streets - but perhaps, we sometimes allow ourselves to think, if they just wanted it badly enough, they could work their way out of their situation. After all, there is infrastructure in place to help those who want to help themselves. And this is the hidden danger of living in bureaucratized society: we have the luxury of turning a blind eye to our fellow humans instead of trying to understand them. We can trust that these "peripheral people" are being taken care of, and we can stay focused on ourselves.
The Importance of Practicing "Outrospection"
Thanks to the recent wave of popularity of true crime documentaries, most of us are becoming more aware of flaws in our criminal justice system (though, long before it was trending, filmmakers were shining their light on cases like the West Memphis Three and the Central Park Five, both of which highlight gross miscarriages of justice that resulted in years of wrongful imprisonment for the accused). Still, we shouldn't be offering our empathy to only those wrongfully convicted. Statistically, most people who go to prison end up back among us in society, so we should care, and deeply, about their welfare and potential. We must remember that they are still human beings.
Like the American criminal justice system, the issue of homelessness in America is incredibly complex. There are those who are on drugs or dealing with undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues. An ever-growing shortage of affordable housing, eroding employment opportunities, and domestic violence are just a few of the other reasons people find themselves without a home. And perhaps most upsetting of all, 12% of the homeless adult population in this country are veterans who make huge sacrifices to keep us safe. Women are now the fastest growing segment of the veteran homeless population.
It is difficult to imagine ourselves in prison or homeless. We want to believe we aren't like "those people" who are in the most dire of circumstances, because those circumstances are terrifying. The truth is that "regular people" like you and I can (and do) end up on the wrong end of the law or homeless, or in any number of other incredibly difficult situations. We teach the children in our programming at Children Mending Hearts how to be Global Citizens whose empathy knows no bounds, whose compassion reaches to every corner of the globe. But sometimes the best practice for this global empathy is to cast a welcoming glance upon our neighbors: That felon who is trying to get back on the right track. That female veteran struggling to re-enter society with the weight of post-traumatic stress clawing at her mind and heart.
It's wonderful to make resolutions to better ourselves, and a great way to begin that work any time of the year is to reach outward to those who need help. Let's all work harder at developing our "empathy muscles" by practicing outrospection as a way of tapping into that collective love and empathy we naturally share as human beings. That goes a long way toward helping us feel great about who we are.
Support Children Mending Hearts Programming here
Follow The Marshall Project to learn more about the challenges faced by those in the American Criminal Justice System
Get involved with Final Salute Inc. in their effort to support homeless female veterans