• Brynne Betz

Wednesday Wish (163); Key to a Kinder World



I stood in front of a group of seated men, their bodies squished into high school desks, each one dressed in dark green shirts and pants, each one arriving from very different paths, but all of them looking out from the very same bars. I had been working with them for months.


Every Friday, I brought my toolbox of supplies: paper, paints and brushes, a boom box and cds, and a cloth bag filled with creative extras. I looked around the room, at the white-washed cement walls, the cold tile floor, the tiny window in the big steel door, and took a breath of air already laced with recirculated cigarette smoke. I tried not to decide what we would do before I arrived, trusting myself to tune in, to empathize with the group as a whole, to let them show me what they needed the most. 


One man fiddled with the snap on the cuff of his sleeve. Another tapped his fingers to a tune in his head. A third looked at me with eyes begging me to whisk him away. Their brains were bored. Their spirits beaten down. Their eyes windows to a world away.


I reached in my bag for a book, a book I often visited for an escape, myself. Without a word, I began to page through it, page after page of faces looking back at me with eyes not unlike the mens’ before me, faces with stories, faces with feelings, faces with hidden hurt. I stopped on the face of a child. She sat in a bucket, her hair wet, her mouth open, her nose pointed up as if she’d just felt chilly water wash over her. I turned the page around so the men could see it.


            ‘Tell me, what do you think this child is feeling?’


No one said a word. I brought it around it to each of them, giving them a minute to stare. When I’d made my rounds, I asked again.


            ‘If you were this child, what do you think you’d be feeling right now?’


Most gave me shrugs. 


A few shook their heads. 


And then one, one man, said ‘cold.’

            ‘Cold? Why is she cold?’


Friday after Friday, I shared different pictures from the same book, different faces with different eyes, expressions, emotions frozen in space and time.


Friday after Friday, their responses grew. From one word to sentences. From sentences to ideas, then stories and even arguments about which was more likely, less likely, overlooked, or forgotten. My quiet class had something to say. I had something even bigger to learn.


            ‘Ms. Brynne? You doing okay?’ 

            My neck kinked with surprise. 

            ‘Do you see something different about me?’

            He nodded.

            ‘What? Can you describe it?’

            ‘Your face is more tired than usual. Your shoulders are lower. Your smile doesn’t reach as high.’

            ‘Are you reading me like you’ve been reading our pictures?’

            ‘I ‘spose I am, Ms. Brynne. I ‘spose I am,’ he said with a sly smile.

            ‘Know what that’s called?’

            ‘No, Ma’am.’

            ‘Empathy. You’re empathizing with me.’


*         *         *


Two reports on long-term recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend, showed very high arrest rates for both state and federal inmates. Over a recent nine-year study period, state inmates committing violent crimes returned to prison at a rate of 83%. 

There was, there is, one exception.


In a small town outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, a group of psychologists and mental health professionals run a program for sex offenders called the S.O.A.R. program. The program runs five days a week for twenty weeks, culminating with each of the participants acting out their crime, not playing themselves, but in this case, playing their victim. It is a day of intensity like few others, a day each man is inevitably confronted not just with how they affected their victim, but how their victim actually felt. They grow empathy.


And the results?


Recidivism rates for inmates who complete the S.O.A.R. program have repeatedly turned out to be far lower than the rates for inmates committing any other crime, that is, lower than inmates committing homicide, murder, assault, robbery, harassment, and of course lower than those of sex offenders who didn’t complete the program. Graduates repeatedly show recidivism rates of 9-11%, numbers heretofore unheard of. 


Why?


Many other rehabilitation programs engage thousands of inmates across the country every day for every other crime or situation imaginable. As far as I can tell, none have shown the same success with recidivism rates as the S.O.A.R. program, because none, to my knowledge, teach empathy as effectively.


*         *         *


My Wednesday Wish for you?

Empathize.

With people very different than yourself.

Not just with your actions, but with your words—empathy, expressed.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Find a way to experience, to feel, what others feel.

Release others from their self-imposed, isolated prisons

Unlock the door to a new world

For you, for them, for every hopeful being

For every aching heart.

Empathy: a bright key to a kinder world.