This week I’ve been thinking about two second cousins who have been in the news recently: John (from my Costa Rican side), newly-minted CEO of YouthBuild USA; and Ernesto Nerdnesto (from my Puerto Rican side), currently walking across the US to raise awareness about veteran suicide. What they’re doing is ‘news-worthy’ to most people because of their past: John spent 16 years in prison for murder, and Ernesto — after three combat tours — attempted suicide twice.
There are many things to take away from their stories, but the thread I keep coming back to is about a question that many face as they seek personal redemption from a ‘dark’ past: “Who am I to do anything for others?”
Society loves a redemption story after the fact, but is often very unforgiving at the moment we are down and out or experiencing a brush with darkness. Moreover, we are also very unforgiving with ourselves, no matter what we’ve done: we sell our flaws to ourselves through the lens of what we think it’s the point of view of others, often a cruel magnifying glass — if not a full-blown unrealistic distorted fun house mirror. Let’s not even talk about the added stigma of being poor, having a mental illness, or living ex-con that even having paid a debt for society is still shunned out.
What often stops us in the face of action might not be a lack of empathy, but the self-perpetuating notion that our flaws and missteps make us less able/not worthy of helping others. The times we live in certainly make it worse, since the individualist streak of our culture — varnished by social media exposure — has reached noxious levels at which we might force an artificial projection of self-reliance and “everything is alright” happiness to the outside world.
And let’s remember, this same collective psyche also mistakes self-destruction for strength, selfishness for self-reliance, and sociopathy for leadership — which might explain the crisis of being lots of us experience today.
Vulnerability is one of the hot new mantras of the mindfully enlightened, but even that conversation often ignores the privilege of relative safety to be able to do so. What is there beyond that? How do we create a healthier collective narrative for self-improvement? How do we encourage people to take the first step towards helping someone without fear or guilt of what they have (or haven’t done) in the past? How can everyday heroes be emboldened to act with whatever degree of autonomy or privacy they desire?
In an age where everything is remembered, how can we break anew?
Ernesto’s story: http://www.wfaa.com/…/retired-army-veteran-walks-…/379493495