In David Marniss’s fine book, Barack Obama: The Story, we learn that Obama himself would later reflect on his young adult life and say, once again from the White House: “There is no doubt that what I retained in my politics is a sense that the only way I could have a sturdy sense of identity of who I was depended on digging beneath the surface differences of people” (453). He came to believe that what made sense of life was a sense of commonality, something that was essential to human truth, hopes and passions that reached beyond our differences (453). He says of himself that this thinking is “at the core of who I am” (453). I am not commenting on political ideology in these review blogs, quite intentionally. Yet I must say that I deeply resonate with this self-reflective idea of who I am as a person.
In Obama’s first two serious relationships with girlfriends he wrote that he was avoiding Alex (one of the girls) because, as Maraniss reports, “he was consumed with finding himself” (464). By early 1984 he was deeply involved with his second serious female relationship and was “figuring out his place in the world. Whatever and wherever he would be, it would certainly not involve Business International or anything like it” (487). Business International was one of Obama’s first post-college jobs.
Obama has often lamented that he was born too late because he could not share in the civil rights struggle. He believed that it revealed a struggle rooted in unambiguous righteousness and moral clarity. He would struggle, as Bill Clinton did not struggle so deeply, to embrace an activist future even as he first began to think seriously about politics.
By the time Obama had come to work on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer, and had begun to embrace the people and communities that he actively worked in, he spoke with more passion about his concerns and often encouraged people by his caring and personal vulnerability. In the words of one who knew him then, “He was great at it [community work] because he actually cared about people and he was unafraid to share about himself. It’s creating a safe environment for somebody else to share. . . . There was a handful of people who had that ability, but he was by far the youngest who could do it” (533, italics are mine). The man who brought Obama to Chicago saw very early on that Barack had, according to David Maraniss, “sharp instincts about how to frame an issue. But it was also becoming apparent how cautious Obama was and how much he wanted to avoid confrontation” (534, italics again are mine). What he did have, in spite of all his years of trying to figure out who he was, was this innate “tendency to get to the point, whatever it was” (549).
During his stint on the South Side Obama had another close relationship with a women. Once again it was a white woman. This girlfriend has gone unnamed and is all but unmentioned in his own memoir. Maraniss suggests that Obama remained a “participant observer, never able to fully lose himself in that new world” (i.e. the black culture of the South Side of Chicago) and thus, as one observer further noted, “He was very clear about the unreasonable aspects of how blacks saw things in the community” (554). It was really the pragmatism of his task that drove Obama to work with the churches and church leaders on the South Side. Eventually this would take him into a deep relationship with a minister who was close to him in age, and also new to the South Side. This young baptist minister would have a profound impact on his life. The man’s name was not Jeremiah Wright, but Alvin Love. Love became Barack’s good friend. It was in this relationship that Obama began to ask the deeper spiritual questions that would later lead him to profess faith in Christ and join the church that was then led by the now well-known Jeremiah Wright. It was Alvin Love who watched Barack Obama evolve and said, “The more he worked with churches, the more he began to experience that there was a theological framework even for the civil rights movement. And all of that was built on personal relationships, so he started investigating his own faith commitment and what he really believed. That probably took him a couple of years to go through that” (555).
David Maraniss says:
There was much for Obama to overcome. He was an inveterate doubter, an intellectual skeptic. How could that coincide with religious faith? His mother was a spiritual humanist; she honored all faiths but believed in none. He remembered how she dragged him to church on Christmas, just as she took him as a young boy in Indonesia to the magnificent Borobudur Buddhist temple outside Yogyakarta, and to a Japanese Shinto shrine and a Hawaiian burial site. Ann was essentially an atheist who disapproved of what he considered the narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness of so much organized religion. As usual, it was his mother, far more than his father about whom he titled his memoir, who most heavily in his thinking (556).
In his memoir Obama wrote about his personal spiritual journey in this way:
[Chicago] forced me to confront a dilemma that my mother never fully resolved in her own life; the fact that I had no community of shared traditions in which to ground my deeply held beliefs. The Christians with whom I worked recognized themselves in me; they saw that I knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me remained removed, detached, an observer among them. I came to realize that without a vessel for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in a way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same way that she ultimately was alone (quoted from Dreams from My Father, 556 in BOTS).