Hoping against hope (the psychology of hope)

January 20, 2009

Inspired by the inauguration of Obama today, I’d like to spend some time on the psychology of hope. I know I really should be studying and so on but I could do with some comfort blogging. To start off with, some points and quotes (some taken from here):

1. “To actually change yourself is a slow process and one that is extremely hard and taxing; change, if it is to be significant and long-lasting, is won only at the cost of effort, determination, insight and a great deal of strategy.” (Litlove on Change).

2. Hope is a good breakfast but a bad supper. – Francis Bacon

3. Man is a creature of hope and invention, both of which belie the idea that things cannot be changed.– Tom Clancy

4. One thing I’ve learned from counselling and life is that any incident (however small) has the potential to add to the problem or to the solution. In relationships, it’s often the small things that make the difference. You can choose whether to add fuel to the fire of one or the other.

5. Which brings me in an indirect way to the situation in Israel and Gaza. Of couse it’s an untenable situation that Israel should have to endure cross-border rocket-fire from Hamas militants. But to react in the way that the Israeli government did, which ended up killing so many innocent men, women and children? How does adding more trauma to an already volatile situation create anything but more trauma, more hatred and so on? It’s perhaps easy for me to say this but a radical solution goes to the root of the problem. Peace, justice – they’re intimately connected.

6. The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. — Barbara Kingsolver

7. When you do nothing, you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved, you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment that comes from knowing you are working to make things better.–Pauline R. Kezer

8. Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune — without the words,
And never stops at all … (Emily Dickinson)

9. If time and energy permits, I’ll be revisiting hope from a psychodynamic perspective (which is all about relationships). Should make for some interesting cross-pollination.

10. Lastly, what I’m liking about the Obama presidency so far is the emphasis on service, everyone making a difference etc. This is all before the inaugural speech but I found the scenes of him visiting a high school yesterday and giving a boost to usaservice.org quietly moving.

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?”

Obama’s mother

November 18, 2008

I’ve just started reading Barack Obama’s 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father”, and already it’s taking me in unexpected directions. It details his “personal, interior journey — a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American”. The first surprise for me happens in the preface (updated in 2004) where BO writes a moving tribute to his mother, who died the year after the book was published:

“I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book — less a meditation on an absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life. In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder. … I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.”

Could any mother wish for a better tribute than that? But just stop for a minute and think what would have happened if BO had written a book about his mother instead of his father. Would he have been labelled a mommy’s boy? Would people have said that he was denying his black heritage and trying to ingratiate himself with whites (as he says himself):

… some people have a hard time taking me at face value. When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some tell-tale sign.

I suspect that it is BO’s ability to bridge both black and white (and to combine the best of his parents’ respective heritages) that is an essential ingredient of his success. If he was white he wouldn’t be as interesting as he is, and if he was “black black” he would be too different from mainstream America. Of course the issue of race is not a straightforward one. But as slow reads points out, people see in BO what they want to see. They can identify with him, see themselves in him. My BO is not the same as your BO.

I think BO’s comment on his mother was such a powerful one for me because it was unexpected and yet it made so much sense. It has become a cliché to say that mothers are the unsung heroes of our lives but I see it every day in my work. We need to take mothers for granted because that enables us to make our ways in the world. If we are constantly looking over our shoulders to see that mother is OK, then we’re always held back. What I liked in BO’s short tribute was the recognition that the best in him comes from his mother’s love. For me it recalls Auden: “he was my North, my South, my East, my West” and also Shakespeare: “love is an ever-fixed mark … whose depth’s unknown though its height be taken”.

Drunk on Obama

November 6, 2008

I’m enjoying reading the post-election blog posts. The joy, the hope, the sense of history- in-the-making. We’ll all come down to earth soon enough. In the meantime, a few links from the world-wide Obama wave. BeeDrunken captures the euphoria of election-watching, Charlotte sums up our hopes about Obama’s leadership and makes a thought-provoking comparison with Mandela, Verbivore does a great take on the acceptance speech here and Ted revisits America’s promissory note in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Enjoy.

Update: And in news just in … while president-elect Obama is choosing his team for the next four years, the public are more interested in the choice of the First Puppy. Those puppies are damn cute – and who knew that the choice of a dog was so controversial? And once you’ve chosen the puppy then comes the name part. Obama sources deny that the front-runner at this stage is George.

For Africa, this is huge!

November 5, 2008

“Who was the fat lady?” asked my mom, who had walked in near the end of my four-hour watch-snooze election marathon. I looked at her for a second and tried not to get anymore choked up than I already was.

“Well, he got Pennsylvania and Ohio, and then Virginia, but when the networks called California it was all over.” I was pleased that I managed all those words without the frog jumping out of my throat.

But really, the moment when it happened was almost unreal. One second Jeremy Thompson, the main anchor for Sky’s election coverage, was reporting on the latest results with Obama still well short of the magical 270 electoral college votes needed to win, and then he paused, listening to his earpiece.

“One of the US networks has called the election for Obama,” he announced. Then he listened some more. “And so are we” (or words to that effect). The screen exploded in a blaze of confetti-type graphics. “Barack Obama wins the Presidency!” went the caption. The polls had just closed in California (at 5am our time) and the race was already over. Obama wins!

America and the rest of the world are starting to make sense of what that means. For Africa, the symbolic value alone is huge. For a continent that has struggled under the burden of racism for centuries, it is incredibly inspiring. And for the voters who elect Africa’s leaders it means that they too can hope for leaders who embody the leadership qualities of Barack Obama. It’s a nice touch that the two women who had the most important influence in Obama’s formative years were white. In the picture below, doesn’t he remind you a bit of Mandela? I’m sure Madiba must be smiling one of his broad, hugely infectious grins today. The message to Africa should be: Yes we can!



All hail the Barack (and some summer reading)

November 4, 2008

Today’s the big day so I’ll be surprised if anyone’s reading blogs other than the political-watching ones. I wish the rest of the day would fly past so I can settle down in front of the TV at 2am and watch the results come in. Remember 8 years ago — when the election race was “too close to call” for what seemed like weeks!?

I’m going to enjoy seeing Obama and the Democrats winning some swing states like Ohio, Florida and maybe some red states such as Virginia. Maybe the race will be closer than we think but I just can’t see that. Obama’s so much better than McCain and, as corny as it sounds, there’s a sense of hope in the air. Maybe this time things will be different. Maybe America can be an inspirational superpower and increase peace and prosperity around the world.

On the reading front I have a number of books on the go (or waiting to have their turn):

The Innocent Libertine (Colette)

The Sibling Society (Robert Bly)

London Fields (Martin Amis)

Sexing the Cherry (Jeanette Winterson)

Tonight I’m borrowing Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American, which seems oddly out of place today. I’ll report back in due course on the reading above. So far I’m enjoying the Colette but I have some questions. Will have to check what Litlove has to say about her.

The Robert Bly has flashes of brilliance but I find it a bit limited. There are some very interesting ideas in there and I like the way that he develops the fable of Jack and the Beanstalk, comparing the beanstalk to our brainstem and exploring the evolution of the brain. But I’m not totally taken by Bly and I think it has to do with his playing up the role of fathers as opposed to mothers. There’s a stubborn insistence on the role of fatherly guidance rather than an appreciation of motherly containment. As one of the leaders of the mytho-poetic men’s movement, Bly is a self-styled male guru. He’s a softer male if you like but he’s also at pains to criticise the softer male and declare himself in favour of the Wild Man and to argue for an important role for male aggression. I agree but also disagree. What about female aggression? Is the female in Bly’s worldview mainly about nurturance?

Returning to the election, I was looking for a poem that expresses the joy of today. This doesn’t quite get it, but there’s a feeling of careful optimism and gentle celebration maybe.

Spring is like a perhaps hand (ee cummings)

Spring is like a perhaps hand

(which comes carefully

out of Nowhere)arranging

a window,into which people look(while

people stare

arranging and changing placing

carefully there a strange

thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps

Hand in a window

(carefully to

and fro moving New and

Old things,while

people stare carefully

moving a perhaps

fraction of flower here placing

an inch of air there) and

without breaking anything.

Update: I also think Mary Cornish’s excellent poem “Numbers” could apply. Here’s how it starts:

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I think the “generosity of numbers” is a good way of describing that process in which the electoral college votes get divided up between the two candidates. As the votes come in the presenters touch the state concerned (Virginia for example) and then another 11 votes magically get added to the tally of Obama (hopefully). Which will be the decisive state which takes him over the tipping point?

Learning from Obama (Psychology and Politics)

October 8, 2008

Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post put it well. First she likened Obama to Mr Cool himself, Frank Sinatra.

He’s a cat. He’s doesn’t sweat… anything. He is the envy of cucumbers. When everything is collapsing around him — the economy, the Dow, the job market — Obama is perched on the stool like Frank Sinatra between sets.

But then she made the point as to why it seems the majority of Americans are leaning towards Obama for president:

He was at his best projecting the grown-up at the kitchen-table as he answered the question: “How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got — got us into this global economic crisis?”
Said Obama: “I understand your frustration and your cynicism, because while you’ve been carrying out your responsibilities — most of the people here, you’ve got a family budget. If less money is coming in, you end up making cuts. Maybe you don’t go out to dinner as much. Maybe you put off buying a new car. That’s not what happens in Washington.”

It’s certainly not Obama at his most eloquent but it’s connecting where it counts – on economic issues. It’s a small point with huge implications. Leaders need to understand people’s daily frustrations and keep their cool as they plot a way out of the mess.

But I don’t want to beat the drum for Obama today. I’m interested to bring a psychological understanding of this election campaign. I’ve been reading Adam Phillips’s book on Winnicott and one of the things he says is that mothers need to be able to survive the baby’s rage. The way that the baby tests whether the mother is really trustworthy or not is basically to destroy her (in unconscious fantasy). The baby will throw his/her toys out of the cot, have a screaming tantrum and the mother-figure (which incidentally is often the father too) needs to be able to survive that without shaming the baby into conformity. I guess this stuff is second-nature to most parents in the US and the UK these days but it’s worth repeating.

If, in Winnicott’s terms, the self is first made real through recognition, the object is first made real through aggressive destruction; and this, of course, makes experience of the object feel real to the self. … If the object will not allow itself to be destroyed, and does not retaliate: if it survives the full blast of the subject’s destructiveness, then, and only then, can the subject conceive of the object as beyond his power and therefore fully real.

I think we’ve seen that in this election numerous times. Obama vs Clinton was possibly a decisive turning-point. As much as Clinton tried to destroy Obama, he took the punches and kept going. At the end of an at-times bitter campaign, Hilary had the grace to rally behind her opponent and support his bid. If Obama hadn’t been through the mill, so to speak, would Americans have been able to put their trust in him? Perhaps that’s one of the benefits of the US election system – that it puts the candidates through the wash not just once but many times. (There are obvious disadvantages as well in terms of populism and style over substance but that’s not the point here.)

Politicians can learn something from this – that it is when the electorate really seems to hate you (cf. Tony Blair and the British public) that they are in fact testing you. How will you stand up to the pressure? Will you become all defensive and go on the attack or will you take the “slings and arrows of outrageous fate” and stay on course?

There are numerous implications for South African politics. A large section of the public appears to be really fed up with the ANC at the moment and the party could split into two. How do political leaders in this country deal with criticism and dissent? Do they force people into compliance with the dominant view? Play “you’re either with us or against us” games? Or do we have a robust debate about the problems facing our country and accept the criticism and move forward?

Playing political poker with the US presidential debate

September 27, 2008

At one point last night’s first televised US presidential debate became a “tale of two bracelets”. Senator John McCain spoke of how a mother of a slain US marine had given him her son’s bracelet and encouraged McCain to continue the war in Iraq so that her son and others like him had not died in vain.

“I will wear his bracelet with honour,” McCain said, raising his right hand to show the bracelet on his arm.
“I’ve got a bracelet, too,” replied Obama, recalling his own story of a Wisconsin mother who wanted other mothers to be spared the pain she had been through.

Now I don’t want to trivialise the losses that these families suffered but it did seem a bit like the two senators were engaged in a game of political poker.

“John, I’ll see your bracelet and raise you two dog-tags and an engraved ring.”
“I don’t think Senator Obama understands the gravity of the situation. I’m seeing his dog-tags and his ring and raising him one heartfelt poem which just happens to be from a swing-state veteran who has been my close friend for 35 years.”
Moderator: “Ok you two, break it up. We’ve got a debate to run here.”

On a more serious note, I thought that Obama needs to play more to his strengths. For example, Obama appeared to listen more attentively to his opponent (although frowning at times when he did so) and sought to make eye contact, something which McCain appeared to avoid.

The US political bloggers will do a much better job of analysing the ins-and-outs of the debate but one thing that Obama does well is to make people feel acknowledged and understood. I think it would be a good tactic (and just good practice) to show that respect a bit more. I thought Obama had the upper hand when he was speaking from a position of strength and acknowledged the contributions of his opponent. McCain supporters will be more likely to change their allegiance if they feel that Obama really respects their candidate. Remember the sighs of Al Gore when George W. Bush was speaking in the 2000 debate? Those were fatal to his chances. I think Obama does respect McCain and I would like to see him using that respect to neutralise some of McCain’s criticisms. It’s maybe not that important to debate the small stuff and to defend his voting record in the Senate. Obama needs to make people believe that he knows McCain and really respects him but that he is the better candidate to become the next US president.

Update: Found some interesting blog comments on the debate. Firstly Mother Jones and the Moderate Voice. Then a blogger called maxedoutmama provides a reminder (if one was needed) why we should be worried about the average US voter. Here’s her finishing comment (or zinger if you like):

Anyone who watched last night’s debate and can still consider voting for Obama loses my respect. There’s a limit to how far one can defy reality and live. That man is currently outside the parameters of the land of the living. It’s probably due to inexperience.

For some excellent and thoughtful comments read George Lakoff at the Huffington Post.