Change, it appears, is the order and the mandate of the day. But there's the rub. How to do it? Change is difficult.
The psychologist Shadd Maruna wrote a book about how people change -- and don't change -- under the most ignoble and difficult of circumstances. He interviewed two groups of hard-core criminals: those who stopped committing crimes and those who didn't. He called the two groups the "desisters" and the "persisters."
The stories that crime desisters told were quite different than those who persisted in their criminal ways. At their core, desisters saw themselves as good people who had done bad things. Reform involved the discovery of their true and better selves, taking real responsibility for their bad actions, and actively taking a role in creating a new life. Persisters, by contrast, saw themselves as passive, helpless products of an environment that they were powerless to change. Linguistically, desisters were five times more likely to use active language than persisters: "I did this" as opposed to "Something was done to me." Desisters also had an almost unrealistically optimistic view of their ability to "make good."
Maruna called the contrasting narratives of these two groups "redemption scripts" and "condemnation scripts." Those who successfully changed almost joyously fashioned a new biography for themselves, which often involved a desire to help others. Those who couldn't change condemned themselves to the past and to passivity.
We are, at this very moment, at the start of writing our National Redemption Script.
John McCain began the process on election night. In his graceful concession speech, McCain took responsibility for the faults of his campaign and his own character; returned, in the eyes of many observers, to his true and better self, the McCain of 2000, who was combative but nonetheless honorable and collaborative in style; and expressed a willingness to help his victor in any way he could. One could sense his relief that he no longer had to condemn the opposition. In Maruna's terms, a classic redemption script.
Barack Obama has written a redemption script throughout the whole campaign, and actually before. His memoir The Audacity of Hope is no less than a journey to uncover his true self. His campaign was forged on outsized hope, taking personal responsibility (from his imprecations to absent black fathers to his call for more accountable government), and the urgent need to reclaim our own destiny ("Yes we can!")
In the outpouring of joy across the nation and the world since his victory, the Redemption Script has gone national, even global. Obama's victory (whatever the realities of his actual governance) has come to represent a new dawn, an almost religious washing away and atoning for the recent American sins of arrogance and aggression. We are a good nation who has done bad things.
This is not a new story. While the politics were much different (and I personally disagreed with them), Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory was an earlier iteration of the National Redemption Script. The elements were exactly the same. Reagan, like Obama, based his campaign on personal accountability, an almost grandiose optimism, and a belief that we could return to the "real America," our better and truer selves. Swept away in his victory was the collective sense of malaise and powerlessness. Reagan's "morning in America" is Obama's "new dawn of American leadership."
It makes one wonder why all politicians don't run their campaigns based on redemption, rather than condemnation, scripts. But it takes a special moment in history -- more specifically, a national crisis -- and a special messenger to make the narrative moving and authentic.
Change is hard, but, at least in this moment, possible.