Thursday, May 1, 2008

Things no one has figured out: Fathers and sons

[This is largely stream-of-consciousness, so I may have a fact wrong here and there. Please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong on something.]

The whole Reverend Wright / Barack Obama situation has been all over the news lately, and while there has been some thoughtful coverage, most of it has focused on the absurd aspects. Yes, Wright said a lot of crazy, stupid things. And yes, Obama has been a congregant at Trinity Church for 20 years. I'm sure that Obama heard him say some of this nonsense and, at the bare minimum, he was at least aware that his longtime pastor, who baptized his children and performed his marriage, held some odd (some might say retarded) views regarding AIDS, the US government, terrorism, and a whole host of other things.

Many people also want Obama to address why he stayed at that church through all that. It's a fair question, and even if he hasn't answered that directly, I have an idea or two. Much of what I'm about to say has been said or alluded to before, and I'll try to set up some links later. But for now, here's what I think, and please forgive the length and somewhat roundabout nature of this post.

Barack Obama's father abandoned his family when Obama was 2 years old. His father was Kenyan, and his mother was a white atheist from Kansas. He was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, traveling all over the world as he grew up. He wound up going to Columbia undergrad, then getting his Master's at Harvard Law, eventually becoming the editor of the Harvard Law Review. He then went to work as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.

Regardless of whether Obama did that with some future political ambition in mind or if he sincerely wanted to be a community organizer, that's where he went, Chicago. While there, this longtime atheist came across Trinity Church and Reverend Jeremiah Wright. One day, he heard a sermon by Wright which revolved around "the audacity of hope." This apparently struck a chord with Obama, and he struck up a relationship with Rev. Wright, and eventually joined his church and discovered a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Again, I am not addressing whether this had anything to do with politics at the time, as has been pointed out elsewhere. At that point in his life, Barack Obama had already achieved a helluva lot, especially considering where he started.

Let me, for a second, generalize. America -- in urban, rural, suburban, exurban, whatever place you want -- often deals with the same problem: children growing up without a father. The frequency varies from region to region, as does the reason. But wherever you go, it's a fact.

And it's not a new thing. In much of the greatest literature and drama ever written, from the Greeks (Oedipus) to Shakespeare (Hamlet) to Eugene O'Neill (Long Day's Journey Into Night) even to Harry Potter today, the main character searches for his father or, often, his father's approval.

I don't intend to address the Freudian / psychoanalytical aspects deeply; I don't have the training for that, especially when it comes to relating it to all the places in America where the search for father was, is, and will continue to be an issue.

But I'd like to take a look at what Barack Obama did on Tuesday regarding his former pastor, Reverend Wright. Watching the news and reading things online, I saw numerous people describe what Obama did as "throwing Wright under the bus." Some said that Wright had thrown Obama under the bus first, but whatever. Either way, that's a really stupid, simplistic way to describe what happened.

Take a look at Obama's past. He never had a father. He never really had an easily defined ethnicity or a permanent home. Yet he was smart and talented enough to achieve things and reach levels few can.

And after he did that, he wound up at Trinity Church on the South Side of Chicago. Why?

He says Rev. Wright introduced him to Jesus Christ, led him away from atheism and introduced a sense of faith in his life. I believe that. If I had heard the same story from another politician (especially one running for President), I'd've been quite skeptical. But knowing a bit about Obama's background, it makes sense.

Despite his prior accomplishments, I don't think Obama knew who he was. He had no anchor, either spiritually or paternally. In Reverend Wright, he found both.

Rev. Wright has huge flaws, as we all now know. And I don't doubt that Obama knew that then and knew it through Tuesday. Back in March, when all of Wright's ludicrous sermons first became YouTube hits, Obama still chose not to chastise Wright himself, though he denounced the things he said. Some folks wrote it off as Obama saying he had a "crazy uncle," as though everyone has someone like that in their family. I don't think that was what Obama was saying in his Philadelphia speech on race.

For every niece or nephew who has this "crazy uncle," some other son or daughter has a "father." Fathers can be loving and supportive and awesome. They can also be deadbeats who ignore their children. They can also be totally average, whatever that means. Fathers can do just about everything a human being can do to another human being, be it his son, wife, mistress, boss, teammate, pen pal, whatever.

But as both literature and real life continually demonstrate, the relationship a son has with his father -- whatever it is -- matters greatly, especially to the son. This is not to say that a son who never knows his father can never achieve anything or will always be unhappy or inevitably become an asshole; there are plenty of examples to disprove that.

But a son facing life without a father (or father figure) will inevitably seek to fill that void. What fills the void will often vary, depending on age and environment, and can often change repeatedly as the son gets older or visits new places or meets new people.

This, I think, frequently is unknown to the person experiencing it. He is often surrounded by people (friends, coworkers, acquaintances, etc.) who have fathers and, therefore, don't know what it's like not to have one. His friends might, naturally, try to help, offering counsel or sympathy when the subject arises. But what they cannot offer is empathy -- understanding how it feels, and, by extension, what feelings come about because his father simply is not there.

That his father is, in fact, not there (for whatever reason) can make him do strange things. Or, at least, things that seem strange. He will not behave like most people. He will be better at some things, and worse at others. You probably can't shock him easily. He will likely be less impressed with things others find amazing, and less disappointed by things that might let you down.

If he has truly and honestly thought about his feelings (which may take a long time), he knows that feelings are often counterintuitive -- that however he might feel or have felt about something on Monday, he could easily feel the complete opposite next Monday. It might go like this:
Monday: I think my mother hates me.

Tuesday: Wow, I think I hate my mother.

Wednesday: I have no idea how I feel about my mother.

Thursday: My mother loves me. I love her. That's what matters, right?

Friday: I need to tell my mother I love her.

Saturday: I'm scared shitless to tell my mother that.

Sunday: I told her. That felt great. Why was I so scared?

Monday: My mother doesn't hate me. It's so obvious now.
Those seven days can take seven years to realize. Or longer. Or he might never realize, and he'll carry that anxiety and confusion around his whole life.

Getting back to Obama, what he did on Tuesday was extraordinary. In Wednesday's New York Times, Maureen Dowd called it "a painful form of political patricide." That's certainly more eloquent than "throwing him under the bus." MoDo at least used "political" as a qualifier.

When I watched Obama give that press conference, I saw a very conflicted man confronting something he -- and no one else -- wants to confront. "Patricide" might be hyperbolic; others have called it "divorce." But who wants to do that in front of the whole world? I just started therapy four months ago, and I can barely get through a session talking about my father without using half a box of Kleenex -- and there's only one other person who ever hears or sees it.

I think Obama found it difficult because he had experienced it before. Granted, when he was 2, he couldn't appreciate what his father abandoning him really meant. But when Wright, Obama's current father figure, did what he did at the National Press Club and at the Detroit NAACP, he essentially abandoned him.

Imagine how that must have felt. This, after Obama had spoken so beautifully about the issue of race during that speech in Philadelphia, where he refused to "disown" Wright, where he defended him. Where Obama refused to abandon him.

But then Wright went in front of everyone and said what he said. In my opinion, Barack Obama had finally been abandoned one too many times, and he decided to stand up and abandon Jeremiah Wright.

Good for Barack.


The Notorious LJT said...

Well said, Open Bar.

I totally understood why he wouldn't abandon him but understand why he's "disowning" him now.

At the same time, what Wright said this week wasn't all that different from what he said all along - and, frankly, he makes some points - but this isn't so much about what he said but how, when and where he is now saying it.

I think Wright partly felt like Obama played him out by distancing himself from some of his statements - especially after he's been a father figure to him. At the same time, Obama felt like he was not totally playing down the relationship.

So, having felt wronged, Wright turned the volume up - partly to make a point and stick up for himself but also (and I think equally) to enjoy his newfound fame and notoriety.

Now, Obama is the one feeling wronged, which is why he essentially disowned Wright.

Open Bar said...

I hear you, LJT. But regardless of what Obama said about Wright (which was mostly good), it was the constant replaying of those YouTube clips by everyone that was damaging to Wright -- not anything Obama did or said.

Wright's a smart guy. He understands politics, and he understood what it would do to Obama's campaign if he decided to re-enter the public square. He definitely knew it would hurt Obama, and he did it anyway.

Wright deliberately chose to damage his former parishioner -- who had viewed him as a father figure. That's not cool.

rick said...

great post! Obama is a long legged mac daddy, but consider that an endearing quality. check out this Obama/star wars link Danny brought to my attention, it is great.
-win it