Saturday, May 5, 2012

The journey to Barack Obama

There was a fair amount of buzz this week about the excerpt in Vanity Fair from David Maraniss' new book about President Obama. A lot of that was because - as usual - folks like Drudge and Politico jumped off the deep end before paying attention and made fools of themselves.

When I heard about the article, my first thought was to not waste my time reading it. Maraniss is one of those village insiders who takes himself WAY too seriously. And I certainly didn't think I'd be interested in a college girlfriend's "secret diary" about Obama.

But I finally decided to check it out. Most of what was focused on in the media (surprise, surprise) were the superficial parts. Every now and then something deeper was revealed.

As was my reaction to reading Dreams From My Father,  a portrait emerges of a young man struggling with identity and his role in life. I find that story fascinating - not only in understanding President Obama, but in learning what grappling with those questions can mean for all of us. What I see in our President is a man who is centered, strong, compassionate and sure of himself. We could all learn something from knowing how he got there.

To set the stage, a young Obama had just finished 2 years of college at Occidental. He decided to transfer to Columbia in an attempt to course-correct in a more urban diverse environment. I've often heard Obama refer to this period as a time of introverted soul-searching.
His obsession with the concept of choice, he said in a later interview at the White House, “was a deliberate effort on my part to press the pause button, essentially, and try to orient myself and say, ‘Okay, which way, where am I going?’ ”
It would be an isolated struggle because he wasn't interested in the path he saw others around him taking.
In one letter, he told Alex that it seemed as if many of his Pakistani friends were headed toward the business world, and his old high-school buddies were “moving toward the mainstream.” Where did that leave him? “I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups,” he wrote. “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs.”
In another portion of the article, we see that even as he struggled in those early years, his sense of pragmatism is what grounded him.
He had turned away from the rhetoric of the left, dubious of its practicality and turned off by radical remnants of the 1960s, but was also leery of succumbing to the allure of the business world.
And then we start to get a glimpse of how the present-day man emerged.
Eventually, he would make a few essential choices in terms of how he would live out his personal life, moving inexorably toward the black world. But in a larger sense, in terms of his ambitions beyond family, he did not want to be constricted by narrow choices. The different path he saw for himself was to rise above the divisions of culture and society, politics and economics, and embrace something larger—embrace it all. To make a particular choice would be to limit him, he wrote in the letter to Alex, because “taken separately, they are unacceptable and untenable.”... 
“There is no doubt that what I retained in my politics is a sense that the only way I could have a sturdy sense of identity of who I was depended on digging beneath the surface differences of people,” Obama said during an interview. “The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hopes and moral precepts that are universal. And that we can reach out beyond our differences. If that is not the case, then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life. So that is at the core of who I am.”
If you're like me, you immediately recognize the roots of these words:

In the end, I'd agree with Obama's Pakistani friend Mahmood.
Mahmood remembered that “for a period of two or three months” Obama “carried and at every opportunity read and reread a fraying copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was a period during which Barack was struggling deeply within himself to attain his own racial identity, and Invisible Man became a prism for his self-reflection.” There was a riff in that book that Mahmood thought struck close to the bone with Obama. The narrator, an intelligent black man whose skills were invisible to white society, wrote: “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.” His friend Barack, Mahmood thought, “was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and his achievement was really an achievement of identity in the modern world."
Barack Obama is a man who had the courage, tenacity, and insight to take a deep journey inside himself - facing all the light and shadow we are destined to find there. His commitment to our common humanity is not some cheap political rhetoric about bipartisanship. Its who he found himself to be at the end of that journey.


  1. This is beautiful, smartypants. And it's a description of how PBO formed the characteristic which I admire the most about him: beyond his high degree of empathy, his intelligence, and kindness is the most remarkable characteristic of *self-possession.* This is why and how he's able to love and tolerate people on a fundamental level: people can hurt his feelings, but absolutely no one is an existential threat to him, because no one can shake the core of a truly self-made and thus self-possessed person. Thus he doesn't need ego, or machismo, or arrogance, or any of the lower-tech emotional devices which we as humans use for self-protection.

    Really admire the guy, and I'm so glad he's on a national stage.

    1. I agree totally gn.

      Self-made and thus self-possessed.

      That's where the real strength comes from - not the fake kind we so often see.

    2. I have never loved any politician, and it sounds weird, but I really do love Barack Obama in an admiring observer kind of way; I totally get why even young children scream "I love you." It makes me happy that people like he and Michelle are on this planet. And he inspires beautiful things in others.

  2. You knocked it out of the park, smartypants.

    thank you so much for your thoughtfulness in the way you look at things.