Obama’s “A more perfect union”

If you haven’t seen or read Barack Obama’s speech on race on March 18th, 2008 I highly recommend that you do (link below). Regardless of your political persuasion, I think you will agree that it was at least different from what we’ve come to expect from politicians.

Now the word different does not begin to do justice to the speech, and I chose the word because there will undoubtedly be those who do not share my view on its significance.

I write about this speech because in it Mr. Obama demonstrates the grasp of certain fundamental concepts that I think are essential to living your life as a practice.

Living your life as a practice is a quest for growth. A never ending journey that requires you to have a healthy relationship with certain concepts, a relationship that is radically different from what most of us developed through our schools, churches and homes.

Mr. Obama related a strong and healthy relationship to the following fundamental concepts: truth and failure.

I want to talk about truth in this post.

The now movie cliche “You can’t handle the truth” spoken by Jack Nicholson to Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men” is true for most of us. It is true because we’ve been taught that the truth is this one narrow, neatly defined thing that is one way and nothing else. Any variation from our description of it is not “the truth.” And we use it as a test to see who we trust, who are our friends and who are our enemies.

Well this relationship to truth is harmful. People see things differently and stop listening for understanding and compassion because a different description of the truth cannot also be the truth. And we’re encouraged, to ask, “What kind of person would knowingly not tell the truth?” So friendships, partnerships and marriages end, and wars are fought. People continue to die because of this unworkable relationship to the truth.

There is no teaching about the complexities, and apparent contradictions that are contained in the truth. In fact there is little discussion of truth as a concept. We’re simply taught that something just is or is not.

Mr. Obama demonstrated a solid grasp of how big “the truth” is in his explanation of why he stands by his preacher even though he denounced in the strongest possible terms what his preacher said.

And he was brilliant in his understanding and at the same time subtle criticism of how most people have come to view his preacher.

He said, “And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.”

And then he said, “But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man.”

He went on to describe another side of this same man, Rev. Wright, that was not on the news. A side that was in fact more constant, and dominant than what was portrayed in one televised sermon.

And truth and lies go hand-in-hand with good and evil.

There is good and bad in all of us. The movie “Crash” demonstrated this brilliantly. (Please see it if you have not, and watch it again if you did.) Could it be, that it is because we are taught that good and bad are mutually exclusionary, that we are so often disappointed when we see the bad in people that we believe are good. Could it be that this is why we are quick to incarcerate when we judge people bad, and therefore not capable of being good … in any instance and at any time.

I think that the cultivation of a healthy relationship to the concept of truth is a fundamental missing in our educational practice, and the consequence is a total lack of compassion that fosters a passion for conviction, revenge and punishment.

This is a big part of the reason of what ails the planet, and the place to start is with oneself. I invite you to take on a practice of noticing how you come to consider things as the truth, and observe your reactions to hearing truths that contradict your truth.

You can see Mr. Obama’s full speech here.

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“Man with his burning soul,

has but an hour of breath,

To build a ship of Truth

In which his soul may sail.

Sail on the sea of death,

for death takes toll of beauty, youth, courage

… all save Truth.”

John Masefield

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.