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Hope for the Bewildered

What is the prevailing emotional sentiment in America today? Optimism? Such a classic American value, but I don’t think it’s the dominant feeling among American adults in 2020.  Fear? There seems to be a good bit of this across America.  Fear of “foreigners,” of being left behind in an increasingly interconnected, technical world, of what’s happening to our planet; the wildfires, earthquakes, rising temperatures; of exorbitant higher-education costs and how the next generation will be able to get out from under crushing debt.  Yes, plenty of fear but I don’t think this one comes out on top. Anger?  Listening to witnesses testify in the House impeachment hearings, I was struck by what law professor Jonathan Turley said: “I get it. You are mad. The president is mad. My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad, and ‘Luna’ is a goldendoodle and they don’t get mad,” he testified. I agree with Professor Turley.  Lots of people are angry and not just about politics it seems.

Still, I think there’s something else, stronger, and maybe harder to grapple with.  It’s bewilderment.  That feeling of having fallen through the rabbit hole and ending up in a place that just doesn’t comport with our belief about the way things should be. A universe where values which we’ve collectively held dear and passed on to our children, values like “always tell the truth,” and “treat others the way you want to be treated,” are violated routinely and often it seems without even momentary pause to consider, “should I be saying or doing this?” Being bewildered is uncomfortable.  In this state, it’s all too easy to succumb to despair as in: “I’m never going to figure this out” or “I guess this is the new normal.”  But being uncomfortable also provides opportunity for reflection about what really matters, resolution to live by cherished values and above all a commitment to act.

For decades, there seemed to be a chasm between liberals and conservatives on what constitutes “just” in criminal justice policy.  Today there is broad, bipartisan agreement that the reach of the justice system is too great and investments in community interventions have been too little.  Today, there is a broader more complete understanding about contributors to crime and challenges to successful community reintegration.  The notion or belief that somehow those with criminal records are “others,” or “them” (as opposed to us) is far less common.  Of course, this is as it should be.  Justice system reformer coalitions provide real world examples of how we can be respectful, agree on a set of facts and create paths to move forward together. Some days it can be really hard to put ourselves in another’s shoes but it sure is easier if we start out with an assumption that there are no “others,” and that understanding is key to finding a way forward that is true to who we’ve been as a people for more than 200 years. I’ve found myself feeling lost or bewildered more often than usual this last year but I’ve learned if I take the opportunity to read more and different things, listen thoughtfully without thinking about retorts, I come out with better understandings of why people believe or act in a certain way.  Not that I always agree, but I see where they come from.  I’m hoping that this will be a pivotal year for positive change on many fronts.

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