We are witnessing a phenomenon. There is no mistake about that. On the surface it is about the election of the first black man to the most powerful office in the land, if not the world. But why Obama, why not Collin Powel? What is it about him that is so compelling? Is there anything we can learn from him? My colleague, Dr. Morris (who is a hermeneutic depth psychologist by nature and training), and I were discussing this, and here are our ideas.
First, Obama is able to hold apparently conflicting positions, opposites, also called dualities, without becoming polarized. What are polarities? Think republican vs. democrat, white vs. black, rich vs. poor, corporate interest vs. labor. Now, look at his cabinet appointees. How is it that many conservatives are so pleased? Is that simply political expediency? Look at his dinner with John McCain the night before his inaugural. Is this just the politics of a very smart man? If so, why did he meet with him after the election on two other occasions? Listen to his speeches. Go back and listen to his reaction to breaking news of the financial crisis, in November. John McCain suspended his campaign. Very reactive. Obama, remained calm and reasoned. That seems to be when the polls opened up. Americans instinctively recognized the steady hand of Obama.
Holding the opposites, without prematurely coming to a conclusion, allows one the opportunity to come to a third possibility which incorporates the best of the opposite positions. When opposites, (such as opposite opinions about how to proceed in a given matter), present themselves, most people feel a tension, an anxiety, which they immediately want to eliminate.
I experienced this phenomenon in my psychiatric residency training. In 1979-1983 psychiatry was a hotbed of new ideas. It seemed that every one had his or her pet theory, which would explain the causes and treatments of mental illness. I remember the lectures we listened to. At 12:00 we were taught that mental illness was caused by problems in the family system, and of course, the solution was family systems therapy for all. At 1:00 we were taught that mental illness was caused by disturbances in thinking, and so, the logical conclusion was that cognitive therapy was the solution. At 2:00 it was the little molecules that were at fault-epinephrine, serotonin etc. Clearly then, correcting the balance of these neurotransmitters via medication was the road to happiness. At 3:00, when we were getting worn down, the Freudians attempted to have their way with our collective psyche, convincing us that long-term psychoanalysis was ‘the way'. Most residents could only take so much of this, and proceeded to develop what I called "premature closure". To reduce their confusion and distress (if you don't have a theory, how do you ‘know' what to do with your patients?) they soon settled on the theory that made the most sense to them, that they were most comfortable with. Just pick one approach and do it well. I thought that might work well if one were stamping envelopes, but, not if one were dealing with complex human beings. So, able to tolerate the uncertainty, I turned the different theories over and over in my mind for three years. The question in my mind was how could I integrate the different theories into a WHOLE, cohesive theory? Clearly, they all couldn't be right, and they also, all couldn't be wrong.
Finally, after three years, it slowly dawned on me. Each theory was simply looking at human behavior and illness through a lens with different levels of magnification. To make things worse, they were using different language to talk about the same concepts (e.g, automatic thoughts of cognitive theory are the same as the preconscious of analytic theory; levels of individuation of family systems theory mirror the concept of reactivity in biological psychiatry, etc.)
Obama was forced to deal with this process from birth. His origin was both black and white. He could not dismiss one and choose the other. Holding the opposites (he couldn't very well dismiss his devoted mother nor could he dismiss the color of his own skin and all that was attached to that). In our assessment, it seems that some how, somewhere, along the way, he learned that if he could hold the tension of the opposites, he would arrive at an integrated solution.
The next time you hear Obama speak, notice how he refuses to polarize. This ability to hold the opposites lets every one feel heard, helps reduce other people's anxiety, and allows for the emergence of integrative, novel and more whole solutions. To wit: Remember the controversy around reverend Wright, which threatened to torpedo his candidacy? Obama did not respond with angry denials, or apologies. He responded with an in depth speech about his racial experiences and his position. There was not one hint of polarization in that speech. Although he did reference the polarization he was forced to live with in his mother and in Reverend Wright, he refused to disown them, recognizing them to be a part of him. Retaining them as a part of him, he was able to see the perspective of both positions, and forge a third way.
Second, Obama was raised as a Christian, in a cultural and physical context ,which has animistic roots. Hawaii. In this pre-Christian culture, where all of the world is considered to be alive and containing soul or spirit, there is a great appreciation for the ‘other'. One is taught to appreciate diversity, develop a sense of responsibility and interdependence with the world (Pono, Pa'a Ka La'a). This is not dissimilar to some of our native Indian tribes. The human being is often regarded as on a roughly equal footing with animals, plants, and natural forces. Therefore, it is morally imperative to treat these agents with respect. In this world- view, humans are considered a part of nature, rather than superior to, or separate from it.
Finally, Obama has his own identity. He has come to know who he is and what he stands for. He knows that he is performing a role, which will enable him to further the agenda of his constituency. He does not show evidence of identification with that role and its ego-inflating power. Thus, we are intuitively comfortable with his wielding power, as we know that he will not use it in an arbitrary capricious self-aggrandizing manner.
Even if Obama does nothing else, he serves as a very unusual ‘way- of-being' in this conflict ridden world.