January 23, 2017 Koehler Blog The Audacity of Love: Lessons I Learned from an Obama Presidency
By Dori Koehler
I’ve never been an especially political person. In fact, I’ve never felt particularly at home in the community around me. My mind is often engaged in the foreign past – Regency era England with Jane Austen, Victorian England with the Bronte sisters, the Modernist period with W.B. Yeats, or in the ancient Celtic world with myths and legends from Ireland and Scotland.
I didn’t even vote in elections until 2008. I was convinced that my vote didn’t count anyway, and like so many other members of the Baby Bust generation (also known as Gen X), I carried my apathy around like a medal of honor. Then came presidential candidate Barack Obama. He electrified my politics. As I listened to him, I thought more deeply about the choices we make as a nation. I began to care. I began to think about ways that we might do things better. I started believing in the idea of a more inclusive America – a nation that practices the doctrines of freedom and justice we preach.
America often falls short of fulfilling its ideological mandate. Even when we do the right thing, we often do it for selfish reasons. We claim to be a nation of ethical, spiritual people, self-righteous with our high moral code, but when that code is tested, when we are asked to make choices that benefit the most vulnerable among us rather than ourselves, when we are asked to look at the places that our society might still be unjust, we too often choose to protect our corporate bank accounts over helping our neighbors and seeking to be a force for reconciliation for the world.
Perhaps it’s this basic hypocrisy that has caused me to opt out of American stories in my work, preferring the land of the fairy or the lure of irony to the realities that are so difficult to face. Even in the areas where I do study American story, I gravitate toward Disney, stories that intentionally focus on what is possible, rather than what is real.
Perhaps this also explains my personal adherence to progressive ideals and my love of President Obama. To me, his presidency embodies an optimistic view of nostalgic possibility, rather than an adherence to broken stories of the past. The rhetoric of his administration has invoked the only nostalgic images I can connect to from the 20th century: the progressive ideals of Walt Disney, the social justice movements of Dr. King, and the ephemeral optimism of the Kennedys. Nostalgia, after all, is the soothing balm Americans apply to the soul whenever the real becomes too real for us to take, and in that particular case, I am thoroughly American.
But, is that all there is to it? I don’t think so.
Re-Visioning Personality Types
In his book redefining C.G. Jung’s personality typologies, the late, great Walter Odajnyk classifies archetypal dichotomies: Introvert and Extrovert, Power (control) and Eros (connection) and Physis (material world) and Pneuma (spirit) as complementary pairs of personality types. Rather than use the abstract types Jung created – “sensing, feeling, thinking, perception” – Walter suggests that we use archetypes to create a framework that offers a kind of magnifying glass meant to lift unconscious aspects of soul to the surface. He hoped to find a more resonant language to help us understand who we are.
When he sets up Power and Eros in contrast to each other, he means to suggest that individuals have an orientation toward one side of the archetype or the other. He does NOT mean to suggest that we are one thing – all Power or all Eros. In his mind, we are whole beings with a fullness of archetypal possibilities inside us waiting to be explored.
It’s also the case, however, that this archetypal material is in continued flux as we live our lives and engage in what James Hillman called “soulmaking,” the process of bringing consciousness and psycho-spiritual healing. The challenge of psychological healing is to discover where our psychic realities are on that continuum and to develop awareness of those parts that are still unknown to us.
That being said, we do begin somewhere, and our orientation plays out in ways that are both positive and negative, ego and shadow. Working to understand how these personality types move back and forth helps bring those potentialities to the surface. This archetypal orientation is made manifest through our choices, our values, and our rhetoric.
The Eros President
In order to understand Eros oriented personalities, we must return to myth. The term Eros derives from Greek mythology. In the earliest iterations of Greek mystery religion, Eros is one of the generative forces that create the cosmos. In later sources, he is presented as the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Aphrodite is born naked from the foam of the sea. This implies that true love and beauty are born out of the process of being stripped bare, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. When in its most positive form, then, Eros is the generative force born of love, beauty, and vulnerability without shame.
Such is the case with President Obama. From the moment when he burst onto the national political stage in 2004, he became known for electrifying audiences with his passion and charisma. That ability to move his audience has only grown over the years. He is also known for his continued effort to speak to the connections that exist between people. He speaks passionately about the difficulties of growing up feeling marginalized, not by his family, but by a culture that automatically marginalizes and objectifies young black men. He speaks the language of empowerment and justice, reminding Americans that change is possible if we remain focused on who we are and what we believe. He unites audiences with the energy behind his words. He speaks for Americans whose voices had long been silenced. And he never once attempted to do this by shutting anyone else out.
When I suggest that President Obama is oriented toward Eros, what I mean is that he leads with the psycho-spiritual energy that seeks connection. Eros energy unites us based on what we have in common. It seeks to share authority with others, in contrast to the archetype of Power, which would lead an individual toward singular authority. The term is connected to sexuality because the energy itself makes life new, but it cannot be distilled down to one aspect of desire. Eros specifically represents the connection that occurs through inclusion and deep empathy. Such is the legacy of President Obama.
As a bi-racial self-professed feminist man who was born in Hawaii, brought up abroad and in the rural Midwest state of Kansas, he should have been our great unifier. He understands the value of a variety of American viewpoints. He suggests that there is room for everyone to connect on terms of equality. As a leader, he has been humble, stable, and gracious, kind to small children and animals, and inclusive even of those who have mocked him.
He has never allowed personal slights against him to interfere with what Americans need from him. Had he been oriented more by Power, he could have spent many of his early years forcing his way in government and retaliating against anyone who disagreed with him. Perhaps that orientation toward Eros instead of Power contributed to his continued frustration as president. He tried so hard to bring people together based on common ground, but one can’t bring people together when they refuse to work with you.
That liability that President Obama faced, however, is also his greatest strength. Eros types lead with their heart. On Tuesday, January 9, 2017, I watched President Obama give his farewell address to the nation. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. When he spoke of his belief in all Americans, I teared up. When he spoke of our ability to create the change we wish to see, I felt my heart soar. But when he turned to thank his love Michelle, I finally broke down.
Seeing the person who holds the most powerful office in the world with tears in his eyes expressing his love for his partner and children both broke my heart and healed it. I thought back to all the times I’ve seen him wipe away tears over the years – from his announcement about the tragedy at Sandy Hook to emotional ceremonies with the military, to gifting his friend and self-professed brother Joe Biden a Presidential Medal of Freedom – and in an instant, I understood that the most valuable part of the Obama presidency has been this outward expression of emotion. That one small gesture, wiping the tears from his eyes as he thanked his family, physicalizes the guiding ethos of his presidency.
Opening the door to love is the central hallmark of Eros’ presence. Listening to the needs of others, submitting to those needs, and balancing those needs with your own as they respond in kind is the very essence of love. For the last eight years, we’ve had a president motivated by that kind of love, and not the kind of love that is easily thrown around as a term on Valentine’s Day and in church on Sunday. It’s not the kind of love that makes our lives simple or our paths unobstructed. It requires pain and sacrifice as it grapples with the drive toward power. Those who are truly motivated by love are also motivated by a deep empathy and the action that empathy requires.
As he leaves the White House, President Obama’s legacy is becoming a fixed image humanity will continue to unpack. These images that our leaders represent through their decisions are of central importance to humanity, particularly as those images illuminate facets of our cultural myths – the stories that make us who we are.
The legacy of President Obama is complicated, difficult to discuss much less answer definitively. Some say his presidency divided Americans more deeply than ever. Some say that our credibility as Americans across the world was elevated as our leader sought to bring diplomatic solutions to international relations that are still in peril. Some claim he believes deeply in social justice and others claim he didn’t do enough.
One thing is clear: we’ve had a president who was motivated by the convictions of his heart. Speaking to a crowd about the importance of the ACA, he once said, “I don’t mind that they call it Obamacare, because I do care.” It’s obvious that he does care. But beyond caring, the most important part of his legacy is what it teaches us about the joys and challenges of a true commitment to community. I am personally motivated by this example of Eros in action, and I will always be thankful for this example.
So, on this day of all days, Inauguration Day, when our new President has already removed any trace of discussion about Civil Rights, ecological conservation, and equality from the White House website in favor of pushing isolationist politics, fossil fuels, and lauding our ability to destroy our neighbors, I just want to end this blog by saying thank you to the Obama Administration.
Thanks to Barack and Michelle for being the example of a loving marriage that my husband and I continue to strive to emulate. Thank you to Sasha and Malia for sharing your wonderful parents with the American people. And thank you to Joe and Jill Biden for your hard work and sacrifice. Your class and gentility made us all better people.
President Obama — Thank you for teaching me that the leader of the “free world” can also be kind. Thank you for being the example of healthy masculinity I’ve always searched for in a leader. Thank you for being a vessel for a passion for justice I never knew I was missing. Thank you for inspiring my participation in government. And President Obama, in times when you feel like doubting your decision to try to bring people together in government, if you ever feel like you didn’t do enough, remember that you are the one who reminded us that you were only one voice of many. Thank you for leading with your heart.
Dori Koehler, Ph.D. is a cultural mythologist and scholar of popular culture. She is a professor of the Humanities, World Mythology, and the Fine Arts at Southern New Hampshire University. Her first book, The Mouse and the Myth: The Sacred Art and Secular Ritual of Disneyland, will be released through John Libbey Publishing and Indiana University Press in the spring of 2017. She lives in Santa Barbara, Ca. with her husband and their little spaniel dog.