Remembering our resolution

As we usher in 2016, Americans are looking for change — change in our political landscape, change in the way the country approaches its problems, and change in our own lives. New Year's is a time for ambitious personal goals, for the idea that we can at a stroke remake something fundamental about ourselves. Suggestions are all around: five steps to a new body, a new America, a new you.

It sounds so simple. Put the right superfoods in your smoothie, the right person in the White House, and better days are ahead.

But it's not that easy. Bold and innovative makeovers fail much more often than they succeed, and that's true whether we're talking about the personal or the political. Indeed, it's not possible to separate the two. Better individuals make a better nation, and when we aspire to improve ourselves, we're also dreaming of a better America.

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The way to get there is to realize that the things we need are things we already have. We don't need to create a new self or a new nation; we need to tap into the things that have always made us great. We need to remember the qualities that our heroes showed in our nation's most challenging times. We need to look backwards, to the stories of our successes and our failures, to the struggles that made us who we are today.

I've studied some of those stories. They show how the character of our nation is shaped by the character of our citizens, how good we can be when we stand by our values — and how far short we can fall when we don't. I wrote about them in "Allegiance," a historical novel about the home front in World War II, and I've drawn some conclusions. This New Year's Day, let's think not about changing who we are, but about remembering who we are as individuals and as a people. There are, I think, two basic things we need.

First, we need less fear. To be our best selves — to be our best country — we need to be able to pursue our daily lives without an overhanging anxiety. More, we need to be able to engage with people who are different from us, to see advantages and opportunity rather than danger.

Our political leaders are not helping with this, because fear motivates voters. In particular, it motivates them to change things, so it is no surprise that Republican presidential candidates are stoking fear. To listen to the Republican primary debates, you would think America is facing an existential crisis.

We aren't. America is about as safe as we've ever been. The enemy of the moment — radical Islamic terrorism — got lucky once, taking advantage of our complacency and inattention. In the 14 years or so since Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism has been an insignificant presence in American life. Lightning has killed more people; so have toasters, bathtubs and cows. You are more likely to be shot by a toddler than a terrorist.

It's true, of course, that terrorists are actively seeking to do us harm, unlike toasters, bathtubs and toddlers. (The jury's still out on cows.) But the fact that this malign intent has, so far, been quite unsuccessful in actually inflicting harm should be a comfort. It suggests that what we are doing is, in fact, working. There is no need to adopt different and radical measures.

Nor would that be the American thing to do. America is a brave country. We were born from a desperate gamble, a long-shot bid for independence that pitted untested militias against the world's greatest power. We have faced terrible dangers in the past — the fascist powers during World War II, the nuclear-armed Soviet Union during the Cold War — and prevailed without fundamentally changing our society. Indeed, if there is one thing to learn from those past episodes, it is that the extreme measures that seemed tough but necessary at the time were not necessary; that they were in fact counterproductive. When we make policy based on fear, we make mistakes.

If not fear, what should guide us? My suggestion — my nominee for the fundamental American value — is empathy. America is built on the idea of openness. We are a nation of immigrants, a melting pot, a society anyone can join. No one is above us; that is the ideal Americans fought for in the Revolution, when we rejected monarchy. But no one is below us, either; that is the ideal Americans fought for in the Civil War, when we rejected slavery. Everyone matters here; no one is doomed always to be an outsider, to have their interests disregarded and deemed unimportant.

Concern for others, even those who seem different from us, is part of our constitution. Our historic strength does not lie in shutting people out, but in welcoming them in. It lies in our ability to defeat enemies, surely, but even more in our ability to turn enemies into friends. When we lash out indiscriminately, we betray this value and we undermine our safety. We make enemies faster than we destroy them. Empathy is what will stop us from making that mistake, so it is important for us as a society to cultivate that.

How to do it? Increasing empathy is hard. Much of what goes into making us the people we are happens early in life. Early childhood experiences matter. Parenting styles matter. But there is one thing that has been shown in experiments, under laboratory conditions, to increase empathy. That is reading literary fiction. Nonfiction doesn't work, and thrillers with one-dimensional characters don't either. But something about literary novels seems to enhance our ability to understand others and to put ourselves in their shoes.

So the bottom line for getting back to our best selves turns out to be the sort of thing an individual might adopt as a New Year's resolution after all. Be less scared. Be more empathetic. And as a concrete step in that direction, read more novels.

Roosevelt is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the author of the multidimensional literary novel "Allegiance."

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