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”.


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?


On Empathy

September 10, 2008


I’ve decided to make September empathy month here at the Couch Trip. We’ll see how far I get with that but I’ve definitely got a few posts on this topic. For starters I was wondering whether the words “fun” and “empathy” can exist in the same sentence. Is empathy just serious or can it be sexy?

I was thinking yesterday about a case from last year. A young girl (in her teens) was referred to me for a cognitive assessment to help with school placement. On the intelligence test she scored in the “Cognitively Handicapped” range but there was a very big discrepancy between her Verbal and Performance IQs. Her Verbal IQ was basically terrible while her performance in the non-verbal tests was significiantly better. She was very anxious and she was, to use the language of Klein or Winnicott, very caught up in her internal world. My heart went out to her and I really wanted to help if I could but there wasn’t much that I could do. We did the assessment and I wrote up my report (recommending she be transferred to a more technical school, but also that she receive therapy and that her mother attend parental guidance classes and also therapy of her own). Remembering the case, I feel a bit sad. Perhaps I identify with the teenager caught up in their internal world and needing a helping hand to build more meaningful relationships.

There are many aspects of empathy that I’d like to mention. I initially got on to the topic by looking at violence. In August I opened a file on my computer called ‘Violence Research’ and started filling it with articles on “Freud and Violence” and so on. But after about two weeks of this, I realised that I was very possibly missing the point. Violence (like evil) flourishes in the absence of empathy. Shouldn’t we rather focus on the empathy (and the lack thereof) rather than on the violence? I liked what Barack Obama said about the “empathy deficit” being a problem that should receive as much attention as the budget deficit. (What a pity if the polls are right and the Republicans win once again.)

And, following Arthur Saltzman, I would love to make this topic dance, to come alive. But as with the issue of sanity (which Adam Phillips made so interesting in Going Sane), I think the issue of empathy could do with a makeover. So where to begin?

Yesterday my group had a really good discussion about empathy and our poet-priest reminded us of Agape (unconditional love) as well as introducing us to a Tonglan meditation, which effectively asked us to “breathe in the pain” and “open your heart-mind”.

I like this poem by the Canadian poet Carmine Starnino called ‘The Last Days’ (posted by Alex Boyd at The Danforth Review) :
When the nurse let go, my aunt
stood there, disoriented, swaying a little
from side to side, and we understood
that for one more day she had been
returned to us, her body given back
to the world. My uncle, waiting behind her,
smiled with the excitement of a father
watching his daughter’s first steps
as my aunt tottered toward the vase
of flowers by the window, taking one step
then another, squinting into the sunlight
that warmed the hospital room, filling it
with the rich fragrance of lilac.

Carl Rogers talks about empathy as a “way of being” rather than doing. And then I’m reading about Winnicott (Adam P again). Here’s Winnicott on imagination: “A sign of health in the mind is the ability of one individual to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same to us … ” Doesn’t that sound a bit like blogging? Perhaps blogging could be promoted as a way to cultivate inter-subjective empathy?

By the way the picture at the top refers to walking around in someone else’s shoes (photo by PataGata at Flickr). Another image that I think would work is a Mark Rothko print. Very New York psychotherapist’s office.

Lastly, another quote from Alex Boyd’s excellent article in TDR. Here he quotes Alden Nowland’s “Johnnie’s Poem”

Look! I’ve written a poem!
Johnnie says
and hands it to me
and it’s about
his grandfather dying
last summer, and me
in the hospital
and I want to cry,
don’t you see, because it doesn’t matter
if it’s not very good:
what matters is he knows
and it was me, his father, who told him
you write poems about what
you feel deepest and hardest.


No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, 2007)

September 6, 2008

No Country for Old Men (No Country) is the most violent of the Coen brothers 10 movies to date and also the most successful, winning four Oscars including Best Film and Best Director. I enjoyed it and I was also disturbed by it, and perhaps I was disturbed by not really being disturbed (if you follow the logic). What alarmed me as much as the violence was the emotional bleakness of the movie. You expect people to die in a Hollywood crime drama / noir / thriller/ black comedy but you don’t expect the characters to be so blasé about it.

NPR does a good plot summary:

A hunter, stalking a wounded deer in the Texas desert, comes across a scene of carnage: A drug deal gone wrong, corpses everywhere, $2 million in a suitcase. The hunter, played in No Country for Old Men by Josh Brolin, takes the suitcase — and knowing that he’s about to go from hunter to hunted, he takes a few precautions, too, spiriting himself out of town in one direction, and his wife in another.
Unluckily for them both, a psycho with a Buster Brown haircut and a weird weapon of choice is already on the hunter’s trail. The weapon — a compressed-air gun of the sort used for killing cattle in slaughterhouses — leaves no clues, which initially leaves the local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) more than a little perplexed. But he’ll eventually connect the killer and the hunter, and he’ll prove pretty good at playing catch-up in a film that directors Joel and Ethan Coen have orchestrated as one long, seriously alarming chase sequence.

Based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country is Texas Noir or what film buffs call neo-noir. Wikipedia tells me that Film Noir “is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize moral ambiguity”. The morally ambiguous hero is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) while the film’s “ultimate bad-ass” is Anton Chigurh (Javier Badem) whom Walter Kirn fittingly describes as “a strict, conscientious, self-taught psychopath who vigilantly maintains his mental ill health”. Tommy Lee Jones plays the good guy, Sheriff Bell, who’s a weatherworn, taciturn third-generation lawman with old-fashioned family values. I suspect that in real life he would probably vote for McCain and Palin in the US election — or at least approve of Palin’s “God and Guns” philosophy.

Accepting their Academy Award for Best Director, older brother Joel commented on the brother’s 20-year history of film-making: “What we do now doesn’t feel that much different from what we were doing then. We’re very thankful to all of you out there for continuing to let us play in our corner of the sandbox.”

I like that, a recognition that film-making is about playing. And being interested as I am in the psychology of violence, I think it’s an interesting debate about whether depicting violence in movies (even if tastefully done in a relatively restrained way here) is a good thing or a bad thing. In my opinion, what would make the depiction of such violence worthwhile would be if it contributed to our understanding of ourselves as emotionally complex, both loving and hating. One of the things that bugs me about this movie is that the violence doesn’t ring true. In my experience and from what I’ve read on the topic, violence is not as clean-cut and un-emotional as depicted here. Of course there are many different types of violence but the general sense that I get is that “violence gratifies the ego” (Adam Phillips). Anyone who’s seen the pictures of a panga-wielding mob at the time of the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa will immediately recognise the glee etched on the faces of the men seemingly intent on hurting or killing the African immigrants in their townships. In No Country there’s the complete opposite. Anton Chigurh takes delight in his twisted primitive logic (“Call it, Friendo”) but no apparent joy in his killing spree. There’s violence and a lot of chasing and fleeing but no emotional depth.

Walter Kirn calls Cormac McCarthy’s novel “sinister high hokum” but praises the skill with which it’s executed. He also has a neat analysis of the gender divisions:

At times, the whole novel borders on caricature, so unremittingly hard-boiled that it threatens to turn to steam. The streamlined, barely punctuated sentences delineate the grisly action — from running gun battles on small-town Main Streets to the agonized bandaging of bullet wounds in obscure motel rooms — in the point-by-point manner of a technical manual, enumerating every muzzle blast and diagraming every ambush as though violence were a dry industrial process. The characters’ states of mind rate little commentary and are completely dissolved in their behavior, which consists of fleeing and fighting and little else. The women involved are on hand to cower, grieve and plead for explanations of the mayhem that the men who’ve unleashed it decline to give them, partly out of old-school chivalry but mostly because they don’t have any answers. All the men have is momentum and loaded weapons, which seem to fire of their own volition, since that’s what loaded weapons like to do.

Perhaps one of the arguments in favour of this kind of film violence is the detailed examination of the consequences. Once the chase is underway there won’t be a resolution until the bloody end (or even then). But a counter-argument revolves around the two-dimensional nature of Chigurh. “You don’t have to do this” is what many of the victims say to Chigurh who is unmoved and kills them anyway. He is the “ultimate bad-ass”, the “devil incarnate”, a ghost, a cipher, a homicidal lunatic, a psychotic serial killer. What makes him so powerful is that he is a two-dimensional screen for our projections of seemingly-unstoppable, calmly-determined evil. He has a primitive morality: life or death is decided by Fate and the toss of a coin.

But if Chigurh were a client on the couch, there’d be nothing to work with. He’s pure evil but he has no history, no family, nothing which serves to explain his behaviour other than his otherness and his bad haircut. One of his defining attributes is that he has no sense of humour and shows little or no emotion of any kind. He’s a feeling-less robotic killer with an iron determination. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” says Woody Harrelson’s character, who also compares him to the Bubonic plague.

As a viewer I want to say, Wait, Stop, even so-called psychopaths have feelings of some kind. Conveniently, Chigurh is an outsider, he’s different in some way. Put him in a turban and there’d be a massive outcry but the outsider-ness here is not that much different (with the obvious disparity being that Spaniards don’t take the character of Anton Chigurh personally).

In terms of the psychology of violence, there are no easy lessons to be had from No Country. But from a cinematic point of view, it was, well, fun. The Coen brothers are masters of their sandbox and give them a dark comedy and they will insinuate their way into your consciousness with a haunting thriller.


On Every Street

August 28, 2008

There’s gotta be a record of you some place
You gotta be on somebody’s books
The lowdown – a picture of your face
Your injured looks

The sacred and profane
The pleasure and the pain
Somewhere your fingerprints remain concrete
And it’s your face I’m looking for on every street

This Dire Straits song has been playing on my laptop and in my head for a couple of days and it has a pleasingly haunting quality about it as well as some excellent guitar chords. The first lines make me think of how no-one escapes what Foucault calls the “web of power”. We’re all on somebody’s books with our concrete fingerprints and injured looks while other aspects of us might be more fleeting and changeable.

But the idea that really grabs me is the one of the singer (Mark Knopfler in this case) looking for “your face” on every street. I was reminded of this song today when one of the army chaplains was saying goodbye to a departing sickbay staff-member with a quote from Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

Now I’m not one for quoting Bible verses but I liked the way this linked up with the Dire Straits song and with the psychological idea of Transference. Basically what this idea says is that we all carry around within us images (or imprints) of our early relationships (or object relations), which we then use in relating to the world. In a strict sense of the term, it refers to feelings (both positive and negative) towards significant others (a partner, parent, colleague etc.) which become transferred onto the therapist in the course of psychotherapy. I thought Dire Straits expressed this quite poetically with “it’s your face I’m looking for on every street”.

*****

On a personal note, I’ve been thinking about relationships recently since a very new relationship ended and another one has already begun. P and I are going to Arniston for a few days next week and we will be taking some books, wine, DVDs, Scrabble, cameras and no dog. Joschka will have to do without chasing her tail on the beach but will instead have granny (and the cat) for company instead. I will also leave the laptop behind most probably so I will sadly have to do without my daily blog-fix. But hopefully I will come back with renewed energy to post some inspiring and thoughtful ideas about whatever it is I’m reading. I want to write something about slowing down and how it is not a narrowing of options but an opening up of experience, allowing us to engage with the world in a deeper way. If that sounds a bit flaky then you should hear me after a glass or two of wine 😉


When the problem is the owner rather than the dog

May 29, 2008

Dogs are like children. You’ve got to love them (and try and stop yourself from smacking them). With me it’s a struggle not to smack. Loving is pretty easy, especially when she looks at me with her big brown eyes. But the not smacking is an ongoing learning thing for me. There are just so many things my dog does which are inappropriate. Here is a list for starters: sniffing people’s crotches; chasing the cat; climbing onto the furniture; entering other people’s gardens and doing her business there; entering other people’s houses; running away when she hears the garbage men or there’s a thunderstorm; licking her paw obsessively when owner is trying to concentrate; bullying small puppies; slobbering on strangers.

A lot of people would read a list like that and think: It’s the owner’s fault. Why did he let her get out of hand? Where was the consistency, discipline, loving guidance, rules? And then I’m quick to reply that I’m the third owner and that she learned her bad behaviour in her puppyhood. She wasn’t socialised adequately. Pedigreed ridgebacks are highly strung. We’ve had four homes in four years. I’m a single working dog-owner etc.

Actually I shouldn’t blame her for the paw-licking and the slobbering and the running away from noisy garbage trucks. That’s pretty much involuntary. And she’s a lot better about not climbing onto the furniture and slobbering on strangers. The crotch-sniffing is easy to control if you are an assertive person. Lifting your knee, turning away and saying “No” in a stern voice will do it.

Big dogs need lots of exercise and since I’m away from the house from 7am to 4.30pm she only gets one walk a day. I know exactly what I would say if I were the dog psychologist giving my opinion. If you want your dog to change her behaviour, you have to change your behaviour. Losing your temper and throwing a small blue baby elephant at your dog when she licks obsessively is not appropriate behaviour. Smacking her with the dog’s lead for not listening to instructions on a walk is not appropriate behaviour. Oy vey.

All the dog classes in the world will not make a difference unless she has a stable home environment. I’ve been working on that and I’m pretty happy with the current set-up. Granny (and sometimes grandpa) looks after her for much of every day. She has routine and another dog to play with. She gets a daily walk (although admittedly not as long as is needed for a dog of her size). She gets to take her aggression out on the Alsatians up the road (a lot of fierce barking through the fence). We avoid small puppies since it’s just too traumatic to try and explain to their owners that my hulking brute of a ridgeback is actually an anxious dog rather than a big bully. The dog and the cat have separate living quarters.

On a happier note, seeing a bouncy dog running wild on the beach is a pleasure. She takes off at speed, does figures of eight, chases her tail, attacks the waves and does some serious sprint-work, tail tucked in, down the shoreline. Then I forget about the slobbering and the furniture and the embarrassment of explaining an exuberant overgrown puppy to non-doggy people.