Category Archives: awareness

Thank You for Your Apology

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Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past.

~Tryon Edwards~

The day after the recent presidential election, I ventured out the door after a period of being stunned. I ran into a man I knew on a limited social basis. As usual, he asked how I was doing that day. I told him I was not doing very well. His very upbeat demeanor told me we had voted for different candidates.

We tried having a conversation about politics and in particular the election, both voicing our reasons for voting the way we did. I don’t think the conversation resolved anything or led either of us to alter his views.  I left his company resolving to be cordial in the future but to avoid political conversation which only served to upset both of us.

This has worked for several weeks. This morning when we met, he surprised me by apologizing for being overly strong in his statements in our last conversation of any length or consequence. I tried to recall whether I had said anything which might have offended him and apologized myself just in case. He assured me that I had not said anything to offend him and again apologized for his tone in the last conversation.

We were able to agree that the campaign and election were upsetting for everyone including both of us. We also agreed on being upset and worried about the great divide between the two halves of our fellow countrymen. We shared our fears about what this conflict would mean for the future of our country.

As I left our conversation, I felt the best I have since the election. Neither of us changed our minds, and did not try to change each other’s. We were able to share our mutual fears and hopes for the future. I realized that I do not need to see everyone with whom I disagree as an enemy.

Most of us want the best for our country and for each other. We just have different ideas about how to get there. At one time our leaders with different positions were able to sit down to find compromises with which we could all live. This does not seem to be the case right now. However, if we who elected them can talk with each other in the interest of our mutual benefit, we might be able to set a good example for our elected leaders. None of us can single-handedly change the tensions, disagreements, and hostility evident among our country’s citizens. Yet we can begin by building bridges between ourselves and those with whom we come into contact on a daily basis. That is at least a start.

Life Lab Lessons

  • If you are angry when you discuss politics, why do you think that is?
  • Look further to see what other feelings you might have?
  • Is fear one of them?
  • What do you fear?
  • Is it easier to discuss your fears with others than your anger?

Criminal Justice?

How silly of us to think that we can prepare men for social life by reversing the ordinary process of socialization- silence for the only animal with speech; repressive regimentation of men who are in prison because they need to learn how to exercise their activities in constructive ways; outward conformity to rules which repress all efforts at constructive expression.

~Karl Menninger~

What if we had a training program to teach people how to become better criminals? We do, you know. In his 1966 book, The Crime of Punishment, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a critical review of the system for treating (punishing) criminals. Here is one conclusion he drew from his study, “The idea of punishment as the law interprets it seems to be that inasmuch as a man has offended society, society must officially offend him.” In other words the main goal of criminal justice is to exact revenge in proportion to the perceived offense.

In this country we have a criminal justice system which includes law enforcement, the courts and corrections system. Although these titles sound good, in reality what mostly exists is a punishment system. In theory, the system is supposed to make sure that citizens act in accordance with societal standards which are enforced by our laws. In practice, the system mainly provides vengeance on behalf of society on perpetrators of crimes.

All too often in recent times we see police officers engaging in the same violent behavior which they are paid to protect us from. More often than not, they are given the benefit of the doubt and not held accountable when they engage in violent behavior, despite the evidence against them. Courts were designed to help maintain a civil society by isolating criminals from society or seeking programs for them which might correct their behavior. In reality, sentencing is more about what the criminal “deserves” rather than what would change his or her behavior. The corrections system has largely given up on correcting criminals. Instead they are the agency which administers punishment corresponding to their offenses.

Menninger pointed out that there is little effort put into understanding the criminal, “No distinction is made in the degree of punishment for the dangerous, the docile, the stupid, the shrewd, the wistful, the confused or the desperate on the basis of these characteristics.” Instead the courts follow guidelines for various crimes with little consideration of who the criminal is as a person.  The main motivation for the system is to exact vengeance on the perpetrator to satisfy society. He also defines punishment as “the deliberate infliction of pain in addition to or in lieu of penalty.”

He noted that prisoners are treated like children, “the prisoner is clothed, housed, fed, cared for, told what to do and what not to do, where to go and where to stay.” We take people who do not seem to know how to act in society and take away all their opportunities to decide anything for years at a time, and then expect them to be able to function in society when they are eventually released.

Menninger also pointed out that it is silly of society to try to re-socialize a convict by “reversing the ordinary process of socializaton.” Prisoners are required to follow a rigid routine with little opportunity to learn how to make better decisions or to exercise any decision making. There is little opportunity to learn how to express themselves in light of strict rules which do not all allow for the opportunity to learn and practice socially appropriate behavior

Researchers long ago concluded that punishment does not usually change behavior, at least for the better. It makes those punished more likely to commit further criminal acts. They learn to become better criminals during their time in prison with little constructive activity available. They often become motivated to seek vengeance for being punished in prison. Punishment can bring to a person’s attention that his or her behavior is not acceptable. Yet many incarcerated individuals have no idea what alternatives are available to them. Menninger sees the appropriate role of corrections to help offenders regain their self respect and learn to be productive members of society.

Menninger did not suggest that society should just ignore criminal behavior. Indeed he sees it as society’s obligation to respond, but in a different manner than seeking revenge.  He quotes the 1870 American Correction Association principle, “The aim of the prison should be to make industrious free men rather than orderly and obedient prisoners.” This principle seems to have been long forgotten. Yet it would seem more helpful and appropriate to help prisoners learn how to function as better citizens rather than to beat them over the head for not being good citizens.

Perhaps partially in response to Menninger’s work and also in the context of the civil rights movement, our society and government started looking at the criminal justice system and moving toward more rational alternatives. Alternatives to incarceration such as mediation, mental health treatment in jails and prisons, educational and job training programs as well as follow-up programs such as half-way houses and on the job training arose as we took a reasoned look at the problem of crime. In particular, racism and poverty began to be addressed in a rational way.

Despite this trend, many people resented “pampering” of inmates and saw them as being mollycoddled by do-gooders. The focus of efforts that did exist was mainly on those who had already become prisoners. Despite some prisoners learning from their experience with prison and making changes in their lives, recidivism remains high. In recent years, between two thirds and seventy-five percent of criminals eventually wind up back in prison within five years of release. The common perception is “once a criminal, always a criminal.”  People and governments began to see efforts at reforming prisoners as a lost cause and our society swung to a punishment system without much concern for the possibility of change.

In my opinion, efforts at reform have not gone far enough. Changing the criminal culture will not take place based on draconian laws and harsher punishment. The roots of crime lie in poverty and racism with some people seeing no viable options for them other than turning to crime. The real challenge is to change our prejudices and find a way for everyone to have viable options to survival other than those provided by the criminal route.

The myth that more punitive approaches to criminals would make them more inclined to reform themselves too precedence and our prisons began to expand and fill with more prisoners than any other place on earth. Psychological studies have shown that punishment does not generally improve deviant behavior. Incarceration as it stands now is chiefly a school for crime and a place for fledgling criminals to hone their criminal skills.

Some police departments have as their motto, “to protect and to serve.” Living up to this motto is a challenge, especially as cities have grown and become partitioned into enclaves for people of varying social classes. The war on poverty developed in the 1960’s morphed into the war on crime. Yet “war” remained central. Over the years police have been militarized and now are often seen as armies to control the poor. Institutional racism has also pervaded many of the police departments in large inner city communities.

Initially, programs were developed such as those in New York City to empower local leaders involvement in troubled communities develop programs responsive to the needs of residents in these communities. These were soon abandoned and efforts turned to heavily arming the police so they could better control restive poor people.

Have you ever stopped to consider where criminals come from? Poverty, racism and experience with violence as victims all take their place as contributors to violent behavior. All of these apply to the majority of people who wind up in the justice system.  If all we do is punish them for a while in an environment entirely populated by others in the same boat, how can we expect them to emerge from prison any better than they were when they were convicted?

Part of the answer lies outside the criminal justice system. Poverty and racism in society as well as their effects on people who experience them cannot be changed by the criminal justice system alone. This is a charge to society as a whole. We need to learn how to respect people as individuals, help them learn ways to emerge from poverty by gaining job skills and then stop discriminating against them because of their poverty or race. It would also help if the administration and officers in the criminal justice system stopped treating their charges as less than human.

I don’t mean by that treating them like animals. One of the characteristics of people prone to violence is cruelty to animals. Perhaps one approach to working with criminals is to give them options to care for animals of the earth as well as for the earth itself. This approach has been shown to work in a few programs focused on those caught in the web of drug abuse. Many of those incarcerated also struggle with chemicals.

What if we taught prisoners how to make good decisions, to anticipate consequences of their actions, how to negotiate with others, cooperate on common goals and compromise so that others can also reach their goals? Does this seem unrealistic to you? Efforts in this regard have taken place in jails and prisons but are not the main thrust of the corrections system which remains more focused on punishment than encouraging changes in the behavior of those identified as criminals.

I am not suggesting that nothing has changed since the days when Menninger wrote his book. Communities at the court, jail and prison levels have developed programs to help prisoners become educated, learn job skills, address chemical dependency and anger issues, learn about society and relationships, as well as transition back into the community. It has been my sense that such efforts have not ever become a major focus of the criminal justice system where criminals are looked at more as animals to be contained rather than fellow humans to be helped to find their way again. That is our challenge.

(Excerpt from my forthcoming book, From Rage and Violence to and Peace and Harmony.)

Time to Notice the Little Things

I still get wildly enthusiastic about little things…
I play with leaves. I skip down the street and run against the wind.
~
Leo Buscaglia~

My friend Judie has been watching a pair of nesting phoebes for several years. They build their nest in the most improbable space and tend their chicks with well coordinated teamwork. While driving along the expressway, Carol spotted a tiny fawn grazing along the median, seemingly oblivious of where its mother was. Carol added it to her gratitude list for the day. Driving on a back road, I noticed a row of cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace framing a cornfield in a subtle blue and white border.

None of these are earthshaking spectacles. Without an eye for the little things, they would all be easy to miss. It seems much easier for us to notice all the terrible things which bombard us each day and the worries which follow us around. If we allow it to happen, all the awful things in life can overwhelm us. Sometimes things which brighten our day take a special effort to notice.

Henry Thoreau wrote his memoir, WaldenU, in the nineteenth century. He described his practice of writing down the things for which he was grateful each day before getting out of bed. Oprah also suggested Thoreau’s practice, described as a gratitude list, a way of keeping in touch with the good things in our daily lives. In order to list things for which we are grateful, we must pay attention to them and savor them as they happen. Some days it seems easy to generate a long list, and some days our troubles seem to block out the good things, making them harder to remember.

The little things are usually subtle and, without practice, easy to overlook. Nevertheless, they are all around and waiting for us to notice them. The above examples are all from nature, but there are many other delights as well. A kind word, a loving gesture, or a small favor can all brighten our day if we let them.

The things we notice and choose to think about influence what kind of person we are and how we present ourselves to the rest of the world. If we constantly tune into tragedy, crime and conflict, we will undoubtedly become morose and negative about the world and eventually about ourselves. If we make an effort to notice the day’s little gifts, we will have a brighter outlook on life despite our troubles.

Having a positive outlook can be contagious. A young woman I know, Megan, is so consistently cheerful, even when things are not going right for her, it is impossible to spend any time with her and not come away feeling more cheerful yourself.

We all have the choice of what to notice and think about. We can choose to descend into the doldrums or look for the joy in life. It might take some practice but we do have a choice and can brighten our lives and the lives of those around us as well.

Life Lab Lessons

  • Slow down the pace of your life for a little while.
  • Look around you.
  • Find something marvelous you did not see before.
  • Keep this new discovery in your mind.
  • Return to it when you become frustrated.

From Commonsense Wisdom for Everyday Life

Empathy is a Choice !!

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The 21st century is an age of Extrospection.  Merriam-Webster dictionary meaning of Extrospection is “examination or observation of what is outside oneself”. And the simplest way of practising Extrospection is showing Empathy. Now, we all understand empathy as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and looking at the situation, think their thoughts and feel their feelings. But above all, empathy is a choice and we all make this choice of whether or not to be empathetic every moment of everyday.

Excerpt from Empress2Inspire’s blog- Read more