Looking in the Mirror of Obama – Transforming Jealousy into Action

Judith Warner’s recent post to her New York Times column Domestic Disturbances has raised some interesting issues about psychological reactions to the Obamas on the part of some Americans. In her Feb 5 column, “Sometimes a President Is Just a President”, she discusses the “dreams and obsessions” about the Obama family that an admittedly nonscientific sample of her peers had shared with her, along with her own daydreams and feelings about the First Family.  Her findings focus more or less on two kinds of responses to the Obamas.

First, there are those who admire the Obamas. These individuals, including Ms. Warner, fantasize about inviting the First Family over for Scrabble, or having one’s children share a play date with Sasha and Malia. More luridly, some of her respondents shared sexual fantasies regarding the Obama marriage, in varying degrees of symbolic or overt narrative.

Second, there are those who feel jealous of the Obamas, expressing their resentment by chastising oneself for not being as accomplished as the Obamas, or by feeling rejected or excluded from their inner circle.

The central idea of Ms. Warner’s article is that the Obamas have an easy familiarity about them that invites people to identify with them. It feels plausible to believe that socializing (or more) with the Obamas is not outside the realm of realistic possibility.

She lists a variety of reasons that Obama could easily be construed as a peer, reflecting various aspects of the President’s biography that Americans might identify with: being the product of single motherhood, having a black or biracial background, being self-made, a smoker, a Blackberry user, a basketball enthusiast, a community organizer, etc. She notes that many of the people she spoke with (or emailed with) identify with Obama because he is of a similar age, with kids of a similar age to their own.

It is indeed one of Obama’s particular strengths as a leader that he is able to project such a down-to-earth charisma that Americans from a wide array of lifestyles and backgrounds can feel such a personal affinity for him and his family. Americans, and people in general, often project all kinds of feelings onto admired figures, and in this regard, Obama is no different, other than the fact that he seems so accessible that he invokes the notion of friend or sibling as much as that of parental figure.

How one reacts to those projections onto Obama, either positively in admiration and the desire to be close to him, or negatively in jealousy and resentment, says volumes about the person reporting the daydream or fantasy. The first group appears to be fairly benign.

However, in terms of the second group outlined in the article, those who harbor jealousy towards the Obamas, Ms. Warner seems to have missed an opportunity to illuminate the meaning of their reactions.

First, Ms. Warner appears, as is often the case, to be addressing a rather elite segment of the American populace. Those in the jealousy category, at least according to the examples given in Ms. Warner’s blog post, seem to have in common with the President primarily their occupational status as lawyers; their attendance at Ivy League institutions; and/or the fact that they move in Washington DC insider circles, such as sending their children to Sidwell Friends (or wishing they did).

Warner points out, quite rightly, that for these individuals, Obama is serving as a mirror for themselves, through which they may not necessarily like what they see. The belief that, if it had not been for “one or two different turns, [I] could have been [him]”, or that one’s family could have turned out as seemingly happy and well-adjusted as the Obamas, conveys the envy and regret that permeates their reaction to the President.

A Lesson About Change

While it is debatable whether dissecting the emotional reactions of other elites to our newly elected President is a worthwhile pursuit in a time of economic and ecological crisis, there is a lesson embedded in Ms. Warner’s treatment of the topic which bears mentioning, and which can be useful to Americans both within and beyond the halls of power, whatever their reaction to Mr. Obama and his successes in life. Jealousy has a purpose – dismissing it as an interesting sideshow relegates us to missing a valuable insight into our personal and political selves.

The lesson of jealousy – towards Presidents or otherwise – is to ask oneself what it is about that person’s life that I wish I had for myself, and then to do the hard work of going about transforming oneself into someone to whom those rewards and qualities naturally accrue.  Envy and jealousy are about our unfulfilled wishes that we are denying to ourselves.

When we feel envy, we are projecting our secret wishes for things we feel we could accomplish or think we deserve onto those who have them already; we are satisfying those wishes, in a very self-defeating way, by denigrating the person who has them. We are projecting our sense of failure or inadequacy onto the accomplished other person – a sense of failure or inadequacy, it is worth noting, that comes purely from self-judgment and holding oneself to standards that one cannot meet at the present moment. It is an unfair self-judgment that underpins the need to denigrate the accomplishments of those who have done “better” than we have.

Most importantly, it is a whole lot easier to sit and wonder “what makes him or her so much better than me that they get to have X” than it is to admit the pain of dreams we had inadvertently let go of, or were not (yet) allowed to fulfill, and then to summon the courage to resolve to take whatever risks are called for to become the person that is able to make those desired accomplishments real.

Begrudging the happiness of others relieves us of the responsibility to do the hard work of becoming a better person. It serves to keep our healthy desires in check that might otherwise compel us to change. We deny that we have ignored our better judgment or our higher values by spiting those who have paid enough attention to them to make them a centerpiece of their lives.

Of course, removing the obstacles that seem to stand in one’s path to becoming the person one wishes to be is no small task. The first step is simply to have the courage to put down one’s cynicism long enough to decide to try. This is much harder to do than to remain envious. Jealousy is easy. Growth takes guts.

So, despite the ease with which I, too, can identify with Barack Obama as a peer, it seems clear to me that he, and his wife, have done the work, both internal and external, that was required of them in order to become ground-breaking figures in history, as well as an apparently happily married couple with a healthy family and a string of career successes behind them. Mr. Obama did not simply show up at Columbia and, poof, he was handed the Presidency. Put in this perspective, one would hope that it becomes patently obvious how unfair and unrealistic a comparison we are making when we wish we were Obama. Few of us – born to the halls of power or not – are capable of such feats.

On the other hand, if you feel you are someone who can accomplish things of equal magnitude, who can craft an admirable life both personally and professionally, then by all means, prove it, by relinquishing your jealousy and getting down to work. If you feel you are simply entitled to the rewards without the work, then your expectations may need a radical readjustment. If you understand that there are things that will be asked of you to become the equivalent of the Obamas, and you are willing to answer to them, then what are you waiting for?

Why him and not me? Because you haven’t tried. Yet.

When our new President talks about the need for every citizen to be involved in creating solutions to the crippling and urgent problems our nation is now experiencing, when he repeats ad nauseum that it is “us” and not just him who will fix the mess we are in, he is asking us to put aside our jealousy, or whatever obstacles appear to be in our way, and do the work we are called now to do, internal and otherwise. It’s apparent he has already done plenty in that regard. Now it’s our turn.

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