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The Importance of Perspective, Part III

Authors’ note:  This is the third and final article in our 3-part series on perspective.  If you haven’t already, please read Parts I & II, linked below.

Consider the following statement:  As 2012 draws to a close, it will surely go down as one of the most rancorous and troubled years in American history.  Consider just some of what we’ve gone, and are still going, through:  a bitter election year that further widened partisan divides, even within the two major political parties themselves; a looming fiscal cliff that could plunge the country into a major recession on top of the one it is still struggling out of; the likelihood that sweeping changes to how we define will be ushered in through the Supreme Court; the rise of Honey Boo-Boo as defining cultural icon.

So, do you agree with that?  Will 2012 go down as “one of the most rancorous and troubled years in American history?”

Many of you might.  Listen to the chatter – in person and in prints many forms – and it’s obvious a lot of folks would agree with it.

Personally, I do not.  In many ways 2012 will be a big year, and I do believe what we’re seeing electorally, fiscally, legally, and culturally mark tectonic shifts in the society, but I also believe those shifts are long-term and incremental and, to some extent, inevitable given our history.  Our politics have always been ruthless (in fact, Obama vs. Romney was a white glove garden party compared to some), our economy more tenuous than we like to admit, and our culture and social mores shifting.  The fiscal cliff, it turns out, is probably more like a long, steep, uncomfortably bumpy downward slope that, even if we drop over the edge of it, will be a painful ride down but one we can still throw the brakes on.  It’s all a matter of perspective.

That whole Honey Boo-Boo thing, though?  Okay… scary.

Without perspective it’s easy to distort the past, misunderstand the present, and fear the future.  That is where fatalism – not necessarily the philosophical doctrine of the same name but rather the attitude of hopelessness and powerlessness over life’s forces and humanity’s depravity - comes from.  As we pointed out in Parts I & II of this series, fatalistic beliefs can easily infect cops and undermine their mission and mental health; how do men and women, wired and primed to fight against human’s wickedness toward each other, survive when their perspective is one that focuses almost exclusively on the darkness of man?  How do they survive the realization that there is really no end to the battle, and the perception that it’s just getting worse despite all their efforts?  If they are unable to manage their perspective it will become unhealthy and unrealistic.

So how can you manage your perspective?  In a world of endless messages about the innumerable ways people mistreat each other, and the decline of morality and social foundations, how can a healthy perspective be found and maintained?  We suggest the following practices:

Develop an Historical Perspective

Maybe you have a natural interest in, or have engaged in the study of, history.  Or maybe it was something you daydreamed through in high school and haven’t given a moment’s thought to since.  You should, though.   Maintaining a sound historical perspective is key to warding off much of the fatalism that comes from one of the most common byproducts of a career in law enforcement – cynicism and the conviction that crime “is out of control” or “has never been as bad as it is now.”  Ask a lot of cops and they’ll swear it has never been more dangerous to do the job, or the current generation of kids and young adults are the most disrespectful and deviant ever, or that the morals of society have crumbled beyond recognition.  No wonder so many officers begin to despair of ever doing any good, of having chosen such a “futile” profession in the first place, or even for the very fate of society and the nation.  They become fatalistic.

But those perceptions are, in the interest of avoiding a more impolitic and vulgar adjective, all just so much hooey.

Actually having historical perspective reveals a few things.  As we discussed in Part II of this series, crimes rates are actually down significantly, the job has always been dangerous (and often more dangerous in terms of violent assaults on officers), kids are kids and young adults are young adults and somehow each generation manages to survive and thrive despite the gloom and doom predictions of their elders (and doesn’t each generation develop amnesia about their own shortcomings by the time their own kids reach adolescence?), and morals have been allegedly crumbling for millennia yet those who choose morality are, at the end of the day, left alone to practice it.

Historical perspective gives us a baseline against which we can reality test our assumptions.

Expand your frame-of-reference

Confirmation bias is the tendency we have to seek and embrace information that supports what we already believe to be true, and to ignore, reject, or devalue information that contradicts or undermines it.  Confirmation bias is so strong in some people that no amount of evidence telling them their conviction is absolutely, indisputably wrong will shake their faith in it.  Most people, however, if the evidence is presented to them one-on-one, by someone they trust and in a respectful and challenging – but gentle – manner, will begin to at least consider other points-of-view.

Cops are prone to confirmation bias, too, and when their beliefs are the fatalistic, all-or-nothing-type, will seek information that supports that fatalistic view.  But many cops have another tendency, and that is to stick primarily with other cops, and generally those whose thinking is most closely aligned with their own.  Confirmation bias takes on critical mass, fatalism becomes entrenched and supported by the group, and negativity becomes endemic.

By “expanding your frame of reference” we mean two things:  Expanding your experience base to include activities where you can see normal people engaging in positive, community building activities and broadening the base of people with whom you have regular and close contact, not just within the profession but outside it.  Our inclination is to seek relationships with those who resemble us in background, interests, and thought, and this becomes more entrenched as we age.  It only makes sense to want to be around those with whom we’re most comfortable and to distance ourselves from those whose worldview may be different (and therefore challenging).  But this inclination is not really healthy; it feeds and leaves unchallenged our biases.

To expand your frame of reference reconnect with old friends and past acquaintances, take up new hobbies or renew old ones, volunteer at a church or community organization, coach youth sports, or find any outlet that engages you beyond your roles as “cop.”

Seek out different points-of-view

The ultimate goal of expanding your frame of reference is to develop relationships.  Push yourself to build relationships with people who may have a different worldview from you own and become curious about what it is and how they got there.  Of course, you need not abandon your own beliefs or principles, but be open to considering and understanding theirs.

This actually requires quite a lot of humility.  It means acknowledging not just that there may be a different – yet equally valid - perspective than your own, but that yours might even be (gasp!) wrong.  It means being willing to not be the expert in the room and asking questions of others rather than being the one everyone else turns to.  And it means, when you are sure you are right, defending your position in a thoughtful and respectful manner.  Regardless of whether you are right, wrong, or somewhere in between, considering the point-of-view of others and weighing it against your own hones your critical thinking skills and even promotes continued brain development.

Synaptic plasticity is the ability of our brains to develop brand new neural pathways throughout life, prompted by new learning and experiences.  Seeking out new experiences and learning opportunities requires effort and occasionally stepping outside our comfort zones but is well worth the effort.  It sharpens us, seems to keep our brains young, and promotes emotional well-being, in large part by helping us sort out and select healthy perspectives.

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The beginning of a new year is the traditional time for resolutions and new beginnings; it is also the perfect time to begin working on new perspectives.  Doing so just might make 2013 a happier, emotionally healthier year… no matter what happens.