Learning from Barack: Anger, Empathy, Community

November 21, 2008

Reading Parts 2 and 3 of Dreams From My Father, I was struck by the power of anger as a force for change, Obama’s capacity to learn and grow out of adversity and the intertwining of the personal and the political. Barack’s experiences as a community organiser in the South Side of Chicago in the mid-1980s provide a few hints of the powerful political figure to come but the lasting impression for me was how an accumulation of small changes can make a big difference.

I was impressed with Obama’s honesty, his determination, his willingness to learn from people and his ability to integrate the diverse strands of his experience (Hawaiian, Indonesian, white, black, African, American) into a meaningful whole. For a start, there’s the interconnectedness of education, health, crime, the economy, identity. One moving scene towards the end sees a solitary Barack sitting in a packed Chicago church listening to the charismatic African-American preacher Jeremiah Wright give a sermon on the “audacity of hope”. The boy next to him nudges his arm and hands him a tissue, at which point Barack realises that he has tears running down his cheeks. In the context of his Chicago community work it makes a lot of sense and seems to mark a moment of emotional homecoming and integration.

On a personal level, the young Barack reminded me a lot of my friend Kevin R. A young American volunteer from Washington DC, Kevin came out to South Africa in the mid-90s to volunteer for a year at a black school in Limpopo province. He was tall, good-looking, confident, had a way with languages (he was half-Italian) and full of ideas. Like Barack, he grew up with his mother who encouraged him and his sister to travel back to Italy once a year to keep his ties with his father’s family alive. Kevin was smooth like Barack and had a way with women which I envied.

Kevin and I finished up our work in Limpopo at the same time and he came to stay with me in Cape Town before boarding a yacht to sail across to South America. Like the young Barack, Kevin had a yearning for his dad, who now lived in Brazil, and this was a good way of making his way back to America. I lost contact with him but I’m sure he made good. Probably not quite as good as Barack but he was headed for a good grad school and then a job with the UN, the World Food Programme or the EU.

Like Kevin, the young Barack had drive, curiosity, empathy, a sharp intellect, and a dissatisfaction which drove him on. Obama also has a great way of telling stories — you’re right there with him in the South Side of Chicago, noticing the sweat on the necks of the old men playing cards, breathing in the polluted air and feeling the cold wind blow about your ears.

One phrase that stood out for me was “a capacity for outrage”. He describes community workers worn down by the system who’ve lost the capacity for harnessing the anger that you need to make things happen.

There are many lessons to be learned in this autobiography. For a start I’m wondering about anger as a positive force for change, and the delicate balance between anger, empathy and hope. A few quotes to finish off with:

On community: “… communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens”.
On anger: “… anger’s a requirement for the job” (his first boss giving him advice)
On community work: “… getting to the centre of people’s lives”.
On black identity: “… are you surprised black people still hate themselves?”

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Diary Monday (on a Tuesday)

October 21, 2008

The nice way of saying this is that younger me (of four years ago) had “anger issues”. (My original comment was that younger me was a jerk.) Prompted by Courtney’s delightful Diary Monday, I went looking back over my old journals to see what I was doing this time four years ago.

I have about 12 to 15 old journals in my cupboard and I keep thinking I should mine them for gems. Then when I actually read them I realise that the gems are few and far between and that there’s a lot of stuff that’s just not that readable anymore. Maybe I used my journal as a sort of punching bag to let out my frustrations of the time. A few entries:

Mon 1st Nov (2004)
Song: ‘Luca’ stuck in my head.
Dream: Hawk chasing a canary. Canary died.

Weds 4th Nov (2004)
Watched US pres election – really depressing. Was depressed all day and really struggled to get any work done. Mood rating = 3/10. … Angry with E for being such a heartless bitch.

[Yes well the rest of this entry doesn’t get much better. My ex-girlfriend had recently broken up with me for the last time and I was feeling quite sore about it. A bit further down I try and cheer myself up with a list of things to feel good about.]

10 things to feel good about:
1. Choc dessert
2. Mashed potato with cream
3. J paid me rent
4. Dog’s leg a bit better today and she didn’t bite the vet
5. Papaya in fridge
6. Seeing friend on Friday – might even get some
7. Made some progress with empowerment stuff today
8. Varicose vein a bit better today – might even cancel op
9. Sitn with P (work colleague) not much worse – stable
10. Rugby test on Sat
11. Saw some beautiful girls at gym

(There you have it – food, girls, my dog’s leg, rugby etc. What a sad life I was leading then. Admittedly I was in a slump which really doesn’t bring out the best in people. But no wonder I didn’t have many friends back then. The relationship trouble with the ex, the work difficulties, the vein problem – the one seems to compound the other and create a spiral of misery. Reading this today I suppose I should be grateful that my life is so different now. Perhaps this time of my life was a bottoming-out which made me realise that I had to make a change. I applied for (and was accepted into) a Clinical Psychology Master’s programme, I resigned my job, moved cities, and spent 18 months in therapy with a good-enough therapist who was able to help me to change for the better. I really did a lot of soul-searching and did a radical overhaul of, well, my personality. Today I look back on that time and I’m anxious about how real that change is. When I’m feeling really cynical I wonder if people can really change. Sure, the best proof I have for that is my own change but I wonder how much of that angry man is still around. One of the best things I learned in my psychology training is that underneath all that anger (and depression) there is anxiety. Address the anxiety and a lot of the anger becomes less important.)