Thursday, January 22, 2009

Containing Oneself

Although my husband and my daughter were Obama supporters from the moment he announced his candidacy for President, I took much longer to come to the table. There were several reasons for my reluctance to buy into their early support.

First, while I am a registered Democrat, I consider myself a progressive, generally far to the left of many liberals today. None of the original serious candidates for the Democratic nomination were touching on my hot buttons, at least not to the degree I wanted them touched. Obama probably came closest, but not close enough to be my ideal candidate.

Second, I was as frustrated as the next person that Bill Clinton did not have the self control to keep his penis in his pants when he was in the proximity of any woman but his wife for eight years. Was it too much to ask? But in spite of that, I believed that the Bill Clinton elected in 1992 was the President of my lifetime. And that translated over to a certain loyalty to his wife.

Next, I am of an age, sex, race and educational background that seemed destined to support Hillary, even without the affection I held for her husband. My Emily’s List membership demanded it.

But, I kept thinking of the baggage the Clinton's carried with them where ever they went and the seemingly endless supply of deep-pocketed conservatives who line up to take pot shots at them every time one of them opens their mouth. I wasn’t ready for more of the drama and I didn’t think the country could survive it.

So by very early in 2008 I’d admitted to myself I was supporting Barack Obama for the Presidency of the United States. My ambivalence had nothing to do with the obvious issues that inflamed certain pockets of our citizenry. I didn’t care what his race was. But I had yet to find anything in common that he and I shared.

When two people meet each other they play a subconscious game of compare and contrast. One of the best ways we learn about each other is to look for similarities and differences between the other person and ourselves. Those similarities are our connection points. If the similarities are superficial, the relationship will likely be superficial as well. If they run deep, they enhance the depth of the relationship.

And so, like every candidate before him, I looked for those similarities I could glean from the 30 second sound bites and 30 minute stump speeches, which is really all I had to go off of.

All through the summer and through the convention I struggled. I admired his oratory skills and his ability to bring his competitors to the table. I could sense some commonality, right outside my grasp, but could never pin it down.

While watching TV one night, the news program cut away to live coverage of the Al Smith dinner. And I found the commonality. It wasn’t in anything President Obama said. My epiphany came as he was sitting waiting during a lull in the program. The camera panned towards him, focusing on his face as he sat quietly. As the camera pulled back, allowing a wider view, we could see other people seated at the head table chatting with their neighbor, getting up out of their chair to talk to someone behind them or leaning forward so you could tell they were talking to someone in front of them.

And in the midst of the undisciplined free form chatter, there he sat. Calmly, quietly, apparently serenely. No one was talking to him, trying to engage him in conversation. In fact, it looked like he was being pointedly ignored, although I don’t think that was the case.

And then I saw it. This is a man who is totally self contained. He is complete as he is, having all he needs within himself. He is comfortable in his own company and able to easily occupy his own mind when it isn’t engaged elsewhere. There was no sense of dependency on others to validate why he was sitting at that table on that night.

My point of connection and the single event that made me as fervent an Obama supporter as anyone I know.

Afterwards, just to confirm what I saw, I looked at every candid picture I could find of him, on the internet. And there it was. Not in every picture certainly, but in at least one or two out of every ten, there was a man standing in a crowd, utterly alone with himself and perfectly contented to be that way. It was blatantly obvious by the look on his face, his relaxed and graceful posture, his ability to ignore his surroundings and focus on within.

I can relate to that. I've had everyone from family members to my spouse, my closest friends to people who work for me or with me, comment frequently and usually not in a complimentary fashion, about my habit of pulling into myself, shutting out everything around me and engaging with my own company. My “self-containment”, as a couple of therapists have called it, had been discussed and analyzed ad nauseam.

And I have been warned of the downsides to this trait. A tendency to be remote, unapproachable. A tendency to rely on yourself when you should engage others. The negative impact of appearing snobbish or standoffish and the misconstruing of your behaviour as rude, just to name a few.

I try and over compensate for these tendencies. When I am with another person I try to truly be with them, although not always with much success. I appreciate the people I love and am curious about the people I don’t know. I have developed the ability to mentally gird myself for social occasions, assuring myself I can handle it for a couple of hours. I look for advice and suggestions from others, even though there is a voice in my head whispering “Why bother, you know the right thing to do. You don’t need anyone else’s advice or affirmation.” I try and empathize with others and focus on their qualities that I don’t have.

But, I am certain from experience, that the upsides of such self-containment are pretty good. I don’t believe I have ever been truly lonely a day in my life. I have trouble understanding the concept. It doesn’t bother me to travel, eat in restaurants, go to movies on my own. My opinions and beliefs are reasoned, well thought out and easily expressed because I have always had the time and desire to explore them with myself in depth. (Unfortunately this trait doesn't also mean that my opinions and beliefs are also always correct, just that I know what they are, even if they are wrong.)
If I am in an uncomfortable situation, I can make it comfortable, at least for me. You can put me in about any situation and I can entertain myself for hours, even days, without another person, a movie, a TV, a radio or a book.

And that is what I saw in that momentary glance of Barack Obama sitting all alone at a table, surrounded by a sea of others and looking perfectly contented to be that way. I saw that shot and understood exactly how he was feeling. If I couldn’t figure out what he was actually thinking, I could at least guess that it was probably fully occupying his mind and totally engrossing him.

All of this said, I am not Barack Obama. I could not be President. He has so many other qualities and characteristics that uniquely qualify him for the job. Qualities and characteristics I certainly don’t share. But we do share this one thing. And that was enough to satisfy me.

I think that, for every human connection, even one sided ones like mine with our new President, it only takes one meeting on common ground to forge a relationship. One connection that is shared, which allows enough understanding for a bond to be formed.

We hear all the time that the Presidency is the loneliest job on earth. That the pressure of every decision relies solely on his shoulders to shore it up, no matter how many advisers provide input. That he cannot do this job while constantly second-guessing himself. And that he better like himself, a lot, because sometimes he will be the only person on earth who does.

And for those aspects of the job, the art and quality of being a self contained person is a gift indeed.


Jon said...

Hi there. Thanks much for linking my new blog, Between the Columns on The Introspective Liar! One note, though -- there's an error in the link, and clicking on it causes a 404 error.

Thought you should know... and thanks again!


Lulu said...

Thanks for letting me know. It is fixed now. I will miss Our Karl Rove, but like what you are doing now too.