Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Reflecting on the American Redemption Script

The United States is a nation of second chances.

Or is it? 

Shadd Maruna and Charles Barber, experts on prison rehabilitation and reform, discuss the ebbs and flows of the American ideal of "redemption."  Here is a taste of their essay at The Wilson Quarterly.

Dan McAdams argues that the American redemption script has two key components. The first is the belief that we, as individuals and as a people, are fortunate, blessed, or “chosen for a special, manifest destiny” to do great things in the world. The second is the conviction that by responding successfully to hardships and tribulations, we will only grow stronger and better. We will take bad things and create good things out of them. Both beliefs are under threat. Americans have probably never been as special and blessed as they believed themselves to be, but they are particularly less special today. In many areas, from educational achievement to average life span to rates of violent death and infant mortality, measurable evidence shows that we are special only by virtue of our poor standing compared with other countries. And as for our capacity to overcome adversity, it may be limited in the future by increased global competition and environmental challenges.

There may be something to be gained by loosening our grip on the redemption narrative. It has promoted a belief in American exceptionalism that, while serving America and the world well during the world wars and at other times, has often bred national arrogance and self-righteousness. George W. Bush, who so embodied the second act, also embraced American exceptionalism in foreign policy, with far-reaching and destructive results.

There is a counternarrative to the redemption script. Its sources of inspiration include Shakespeare, the Greek dramatists, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In the tragic narrative, the hero suffers a plight that he is not responsible for and cannot overcome. Many non-American cultures are rooted in this more tragic, perhaps more realistic view of the world. Such a narrative would allow for a more balanced approach, a realistic appraisal of the challenges and rewards of living. Tragedy, McAdams writes, “teaches us . . . lessons that serve as psychologically useful counterpoints to the redemptive self. Tragedy calls into question the belief that any particular individual is blessed and destined to achieve good things. It looks with skepticism upon the kind of ideological certitude celebrated in the redemptive self.” 

Most important, McAdams says, tragedy brings people together. “People often identify moments of greatest intimacy in their lives as those times when they shared with others deep sadness and pain.” As veterans of any war know, tragedy creates bonds that those who haven’t shared it can never fully understand.

Perhaps a greater acceptance of suffering would relieve Americans of a pressure to pursue happiness in a world that quite often doesn’t make it possible. As a Swedish woman once said to us at a reading, “In America, everybody says ‘Have a nice day’ and everybody is supposed to be happy. You ask people how they are doing, and they say, ‘Great!’ In Sweden, you ask people how they are doing, and they say, ‘Terrible!’ But you get to know them, and they are doing fine, while the Americans, once you get to know them, are all on Prozac and miserable.”

Yet the American redemption script has many virtues. Researchers have consistently found that adults who hold such beliefs are far more likely to be successful than others in areas such as parenting, social support, and religious and civic involvement...

Read the entire essay here.