Confident Vision: Barack Obama & The Green Bear

References to “that vision thing”, now common in political discourse, tend to irritate me. First used during the 1988 campaign by Republican presidential candidate  George Bush, the phrase itself is dismissive, reducing a powerful force in human life and history to little more than a marketing ploy. “Without a vision the people perish”, says Proverbs, but the vision of peace and justice held up by Biblical prophets and Wisdom literature has very little to do with the shallow, ephemeral “vision thing” offered by dissembling  politicians and politically opportunistic spinmeisters who seem to enjoy working  both sides of the national street.

Vision, of course, refers not only to the content of what we see, but to the way in which we see it.   Our envisioning of reality tends to be idiosyncratic and malleable, shaped by our sensitivities and preferences as well as our convictions about how the world is, or ought to be.

Imagine, for example, four friends who just have shared a day on the beach. Back at their rented cottage, feet propped on weathered railings and drinks in hand, they watch drifting sand swirl off dunes as the wind stiffens and a neighbor wanders over.   Reaching for a beer as he settles onto the top step, he asks, “Well, how was it?  Have a good day?”

Rapturous, the outdoor lover in the group bubbles over about the gusts of wind and topple of  waves, the cerulean sky and its litter of clouds.  For him, the day was perfection, an unforgettable collection of images and sensations.  Next to him, a gleeful collector of another sort digs beneath her chair for a basket of shell fragments, bits of driftwood, tumbles of sea glass, and insistently catalogues its contents for her companions:  diodora cayenensis, turritella acropora, naticarius canrena.   

Bored beyond belief, the woman next to her sits  tight-lipped and pinched, as though being forced to pick her way through a particularly disgusting pile of debris.  “Well!”, she says, to no one in particular.  “I’m glad you think your shells and your pretty waves were worth all that loud music, litter, and rotting seaweed.”   Rolling his eyes and giving the visiting neighbor a conspiratorial grin, the last fellow grabs another beer and sits back , as contented as an anthropologist cataloguing rare specimens after returning from the field.  He’d never seen such a variety of people on one beach, and was delighted by the visual cacophany of teenagers in skimpy swimsuits, surf fishermen, amorous couples, Hispanic grandmothers with clutches of babies in tow and cowboys washed up on unfamiliar shores.

For each person on the beach house deck, what was seen and remembered was as deeply personal as their dreams.  All of us see what “is” through the lens of our own experience and expectations.  The phenomenon is so pervasive it’s rarely noted, but it has consequences. People who anticipate goodness can fail to recognize malice. People who expect ugliness look past beauty.  Those who live in abject fear refuse the hand of trust. It’s simply the way it is.  Patient or paranoid, accepting or cynical, we all have a view of things, and it shapes the direction of our lives.

When a person’s view of things is especially consistent and well defined, or when the uniqueness of their personal vision  is communicated clearly and without apology, we sometimes call them “visionary”.  An artist with a recognizable style, a writer with a certain voice, a photographer whose eye composes in a unique way, a researcher who sees the structure underlying reality as surely as I see my cat – they are visionaries all.  No matter their field, they often are quite insistent about the value of their vision and the importance of maintaining its integrity.  One of my favorite quotations from Galileo Galilei has that tone of cranky impatience you find among visionaries who are being urged to jettison their view of reality:

To command the professors of astronomy to confute their own observations is to enjoin an impossibility, for it is to command them to not see what they do see, and not to understand what they do understand, and to find what they do not discover.

Reading his words, I thought immediately of Georgia O’Keefe and her straightforward response to those who found her vibrant, audacious flowers “sentimental”:

I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see — and I don’t.

The visions which compelled Galileo and O’Keefe were quite different, but their commitment to those visions was equally passionate, equally grounded in a firm sense of self. Their feistiness, their refusal to allow others to set parameters for their work, is a recognizable part of the fabled “artistic temperament”.   But it is more – it is the fierce protectiveness of mother for child, the determination that newborn ways of seeing will survive the predations of the world.

When imagination is joined to commitment, vision results, and even children can share in the experience.   I’ve  lost the source, but still remember the story of a small boy, coloring in a book.  The scene before him was of mountains, forests and streams.  There was wildlife roaming about, including a bear which he had colored green.  An adult who wandered through looked at the picture and said, as reasonable adults will, “Your made your bear green. But bears are brown.”  “ This bear isn’t,” retorted the child.  “He’s green.”  Only slightly patronizing, the visiting adult asked, “How do you know?”  With the absolute scorn only a child can convey, the boy sighed and said, “I know he’s green  because I can SEE him!”

Harriet Brigdale

 

In these first, increasingly contentious days of a new Presidency, it is worth asking: What does Barack Obama see?  What is his vision?  How does he view the complexities of governing and the future of a country brought to a point of crisis?

Certainly he appears thoughtful and confident, capable of holding opposing views in tension.  There are indications he can live without others’ constant affirmation of his worth as a person, and live with disagreement when it comes.  He exhibits a certain consonance of word and deed, with his actions as well as his words expressing his most deeply-held beliefs.  He seems optimistic and hopeful, certain of the existence of goodness in the world and willing to dare a belief in its triumph, however long that may take.

What will happen to the country during his Presidency is impossible to say. There are forces abroad in the land far beyond the capacity of a single individual to conquer.  But life after an unhappy administration is very much like life after a hurricane.  As our nation picks through the debris, salvages what can be salvaged and begins to formulate a plan for the future, it’s always best to have someone  around who can function well in the midst of chaos.  Barack Obama appears to be that man.

Obviously, none of us will agree with each of his decisions. He surely will make mistakes. Possiblities for partisan mischief and obstructive behavior abound and campaign promises (which are, after all, understood differently by everyone who hears them) will be trimmed to the realities of life. But Barack Obama has a vision, and a good bit of tenacity. Eventually, someone is going to insist that bears are brown and attempt to pry the green crayola out of his hands.  When that happens, my hope is that he’ll stand his ground. After all, it was his vision and his decisions that gave us the political equivalent of a green bear.  The sight of that green bear appeals immensely to people tired of the same old brown.  It’s a vision thing.

 

 

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Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 10:33 am  Comments (12)  
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  1. Linda,

    After reading your posting, I was doing some research of what you had said to provide a meaningful comment. A search following links using the quote “seeing is believing” lead me to a couple of quotations credited to Denis Waitley, that say something about what I was thinking:

    A dream is your creative vision for your life in the future. You must break out of your current comfort zone and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown.

    We’ve got to have a dream if we are going to make a dream come true.

    There is the fact for some that “seeing is believing”. And as you pointed out, not everyone sees the same thing. The best results may be those based on combining each person’s vision with the ability to determine the real path to the future.

    Daniel,

    I spent a good bit of time last night pondering your thought of combining visions. I do believe that everyone’s opinions and views of things deserve to be heard – really heard – whether the discussion has to do with national priorities or personal relationships. On the other hand, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of combining visions, simply because some visions of the world are so dark, so filled with hatred, prejudice, violence and cynicism I’m not certain they could lead to any good end.

    To put it another way, any vision needs to be evaluated in terms of its ethical and moral content. A current example can be found in the Catholic church. Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to lift the ex-communication of four traditionalist bishops booted out of the Roman Catholic Church 20 years ago for being ordained without the blessing of the Vatican has become controversial. Ian in Hamburg reports that “one of the four, a Brit named Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust denier who believes there were no gas chambers, and that only 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, not six million as accepted by mainstream historians.”

    As the discussion developed, as in this PBS interview done by Jim Lehrer, and Jews like Eli Weisel began to weigh in, there were the usual disclaimers, reinterpretations, and backpeddling. But one thing is quite clear: the vision of Benedict XVI is not the vision of John XXIII. As one of my Catholic friends said after Benedict rehabilitated the Bishops, “This is one of those ‘Oh, whoops!’ moments. When you have two Popes with two radically different views of things, which one do you follow?”

    Well, no need to ramble on, but you take my point. Once someone says “This is how I see the world”, the work isn’t done. Those views of reality still need to be evaluated, whatever criteria we find useful and relevant.

    Always fun to have you stop by ~

    Linda

  2. Linda,

    Oops … It looks like Dr.(?) Denis Waitley may not have been a good source for quotes (possibly, his quotes were originally written by from someone else, too?). After posting my initial comment, I have read a bit more about Dr./Mr. Waitley, and it looks like he may not be who he has represented himself to be.

    Sorry for posting “misleading” information.

    You may delete my comments, if you wish.

    Daniel

    P.S. I still liked the quotes … I just might have to find the original source for them.

    Hi, Daniel,

    Interesting stuff! Who knew that there was a site devoted to tracking down folks who are padding or otherwise including misleading information on their resumes? More to the point, who would have imagined that such a site was necessary? I don’t know if I’d rather believe his employers couldn’t find out about Waitley, or just didn’t care. It does bring us back around to the need for critical thinking and a need to evaluate what’s been put in front of us by our own standards.

    In any event, the quotations are relevant, and they probably are Waitley’s, even if he wasn’t quite the person he was portraying himself to be. I looked at some of his other quotations and loved this one: “A life lived with integrity – even if it lacks the trappings of fame and fortune is a shinning star in whose light others may follow in the years to come.” Uh-huh. Denis Waitley, your guide to integrity. Aren’t people fun?

    Linda

  3. Throughout our history, we’ve had a notion during an election year that we could foresee some of the problems lying in wait for a new president. I’ve come to believe that it is foolhardy to vote for a man because we believe he’s capable of handling a specific set of challenges. Almost certainly the challenges ahead will be different than we think on election day. The future has a way of dealing us what it chooses.

    I now look for the man who possesses intellect, moral conviction, consistency of thought and strength – not a particular skill set or knowledge base. I hope that the campaign process reveals these qualities to me. Then I pray that he will be able to make the right decision when his darkest hour arrives. I pray that he knows who he is and that who he is is enough for us.

    I love your offerings. They make me think more than my poor brain wants to. Sometimes I go off in a direction I wasn’t expecting at all. :)

    Bella,

    What a nice way of addressing single-issue politics. You’re exactly right – we can make some general assumptions about what might be coming toward us from over the horizon, but there’s no way to know the particulars of its path or its effect once it arrives. And I think the campaign was critical for the decision-making process this year. Listening to the candidates, watching the choices they made and seeing them cope with the stresses of a long, drawn-out process certainly helped shape my own choice.

    Your comment – “I pray that he knows who he is” – raises another issue I skirted but didn’t raise explicitly: the importance of a realistic sense of self, the kind of confidence that allows a person to make decisions without interminable waffling. Polls are lovely, but there are times in life when “let’s take a poll” is the worst possible response to events. It’s not hard to tell the difference between people whose first thought is “What should I do?” and those whose first thought is, “What will people think of what I do?”

    As always, a delight to have you stop by. Think we could find a use for that peroxide in politics? :-)

    Linda

  4. Your example of the beach friends is an excellent demonstration of POV, point of view, essential for writing good fiction! If you were to write four separate stories, one from each POV and staying in that character’s POV, you’d have four very different stories I’m sure.

    The president’s vision will never satisfy, inspire or even please those who continue to hate him because of their willful ignorance and/or bigotry.

    Ella,

    I’m all giggles – that’s why I need people like you around, to tell me what I’m doing! Point of view? Really? I’ve heard about that… This has gone into my little mental drawer called “Things to ponder”. (An aside: have you read Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet?” The same story, told in four books from the perspective of four primary characters. It’s terrific and fascinating – one of those I read at least once a year.)

    You’ve reminded me of the crucial distinction between “ignorance” and “willful ignorance”. Writing one of my entries about Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez I said, “There was a time when I knew nothing of Yoani Sanchez. I knew little of her country and even less about her people. But now, I know. I’ve taken my bite of this particular apple, and so I find myself accountable for my response.”

    Ignorance can be forgiven. Willful ignorance – flat refusal to deal with realities that we recognize but prefer to ignore – is a dangerous thing. Figuring out where simple ignorance ends and willful ignorance begins is the trick. I think your Greenwich Village baker can stop pleading simple ignorance now.

    Linda

  5. I haven’t read that book. I’ll keep an eye out for it. Viewpoint is fascinating and what is frustrating is so many readers and filmgoers aren’t aware it exists, so people like Grisham are rewarded for lazy, bad writing that’s full of head hopping, as it’s called. If you want to see an excellent film example of staying in viewpoint, watch Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence, if you haven’t already. Then email me. ;)

    I totally agree about ignorance. I am ignorant of so many things on this earth; doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I just haven’t learned. Willful ignorance keeps people like Rush and Hannity rolling in money.

    Ella,

    I haven’t seen The Age of Innocence, but I’ll make a point of it – and then let you know my view. :!: Obviously, knowing little or nothing about point of view, I’d heard even less about “head-hopping”. In fact, I’d never heard the term. But I googled it, and have just had a dizzying half-hour that felt like a literary version of those angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin arguments. I’ll leave the literati to argue and go watch your movie.

    I happened to run into some things today that were far worse than your Village baker and his cookies. There are people in this world who enjoy building themselves up by degrading and denigrating others, and I find it distressing. But sometimes the best thing to do is turn away and leave them to their own devices. I’d rather expend my energy creating an essay or a casserole than get tangled up in debates that are little more than ad hominem attacks and specious arguments.

    On that cheery note, thanks for the visit and the tips!

    Linda

  6. MmmmMmmmMmMmMm. Excellent. Just what I’ve been looking for!

    JD,

    Now, that sounds like appreciation! Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the comment. I presume you’re not going to serve it up with your kielbassi on Sunday afternoon, though!

    Linda

  7. Linda, your post reminded me of the story of The Little Prince, who has drawn a picture others see only as a hat, but which he insists is a boa constrictor that has swallowed up an elephant.

    And you’re right that often it’s not just the content, but the way we see things that shapes our vision. How big or small, how magnificant or mundane, all depends on our personal perspective. The pragmatist among us would readily question the visionary with the “then what”. It takes much courage and wisdom to turn vision into reality. I become fearful even thinking of how much your new president has to do to bring about the fulfillment of that. And I as your neighbor wish him all the best.

    Arti,

    I’ve been thinking about this a good bit, and found an elegantly simple way to restate some of it: Vision is imagination disciplined by commitment. I can’t help it – I’m always thinking of the polarities of life and the critical importance of holding them in tension. Law and Gospel. Longing and limits. Freedom and necessity. Structure and content. And if you collapse on either side of the equation, you lose something. Imagination without commitment is wishful thinking. Commitment without imagination is… hmmm. I have to think about that a bit, to find the right word. I’ve SEEN commitment without imagination, though, and it’s not very attractive.

    One of the things that amuses me is the criticism of President Obama as “just an orator”. Some of the criticism comes from people who drooled over the film Field of Dreams and its “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. They don’t seem to understand that you can use words to build a vision that will draw people to it, and begin the process of re-building community.

    The process of rebuilding what has been lost in this country is going to take time and energy, imagination and commitment, and enormous infusions of intellectual as well as financial capital. We’ll see. Unfortunately we can’t vote out most of the people who have been mucking up the works, because they never were elected in the first place. But we’ll do our best!

    Linda

  8. What we see out in the world is pretty much a reflection of what’s going on in our individual minds. And as a whole, the country elects a president that mirrors the consciousness of the collective.

    Cheryl,

    How nice of you to stop by. I’m not sure what I think about election results mirroring our collective consciousness. I don’t remember hearing it put in quite that way. But it’s an interesting idea that seems reasonable on its face, and certainly this year there was a sense that the country was ready for a significant change in direction despite the strong dissent in various quarters.

    I’ve added your site to my blogroll, and spent a lovely hour this evening roaming through your linked sites. The Shutter Sisters appealed especially, but there were many other quality sites I’ll enjoy getting to know.

    Linda

  9. Ditto.
    On your entire entry.
    (I’d like to add “intelligence” to the vision mix because the visionary needs to have a mind, a plan, some knowledge, and, the ability to cull support.)

    One of the most thrilling things about this election was America’s willingness to take a leap of faith. We had a vision as a group, you could say.

    Visionaries also have the ability to invigorate, to inspire questions, to flex the game plan.
    Now, let’s get everyone to read your blog entry. Why? because it’s excellent interpretation. Bravo, again.

    oh,

    Well, lookie there. One of the bigger mistakes of my life just surfaced again – assuming that intelligence goes without saying. Unfortunately it doesn’t, but I won’t provide my current examples because I don’t want to give them any more notoriety.

    One of the wonderful things about the ability of visions to inspire is that they can do so without being entirely understood. People often will respond to something long before they can verbalize what they find so appealing. I suspect some of that happened during the past campaign. I know a few people who voted for President Obama without being able to explain why they did so. It will be interesting to track their reactions as time goes on.

    Thanks for the “bravo”. I was especially pleased with the entry myself, not least because it helps to show you don’t have to be a policy wonk or loin-girded partisan to ponder politics.

    Linda

  10. As always, your writing intrigues me and takes me into deep places I’d not intended on visiting at that moment. And now that I’m there, find that I must return and revisit this again and again.

    I particularly loved your seaside example, for I see this often — in history (Oh! How things are seen differently depending on the point of view!) and in real life. When I was a facilitator for children’s grief groups, one of the things we learned early on was not to project our feelings onto the children’s grief. To say, “You must miss your father very much” was a no-no, because that father may have beat that child to a pulp more than once, and the loss is not what was, but what never was and wouldn’t be.

    What DOES Barack Obama see in his vision? We may learn more at the press conference tomorrow night. And I daresay, it will conflict with the vision of many. But I’ve always felt my ideas are fluid. Yes, I have conviction in them, and certainly wouldn’t if I didn’t feel they were right. But I trust I will never be so rigid as to not listen, not be willing to change if I feel I must. And, be willing to wait and see. Not every seed sprouts overnight. Most don’t.
    Lovely.

    Jeanie,

    Your comments on point of view are well taken. For me, one of the first amazements of blogging was discovering how differently people read the same post. There have been times I’ve received five or six comments which not only differed from one another, but never referenced what I thought the point of the piece was! Everyone has their own concerns, their own expectations, and it affects their perception in profound ways.

    I also suspect President Obama isn’t completely clear on how to begin moving the country, and that doesn’t distress me at all. Even the best plan generally gets revised, and shakedown cruises can be filled with surprises, even for the Ship of State. It’s going to be an interesting year.

    I always enjoy your comments so much – thanks for stopping by!

    Linda

  11. Lovely blog… and I’m sure you know you write very well. Writers are driven to it, can’t help themselves, I swear it’s how I breathe sometimes. And words are better than food. Cheers, Veronica
    http://titirangistoryteller.wordpress.com/

    Veronica,

    I’m very much in the process of learning what I can do, word-wise, but I do love my words, and stories, and thinking out loud about things I find interesting (sometimes known as blogging).

    Your site is rich and lovely, and your description of your neighborhood is very much like one or two places I’ve been lucky to live. I’ll look forward to more exploring – there are so many treasures to mine!

    Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your kind words.

    Linda

  12. Thank you for using my image as part of your very interesting article, I am pleased he fitted in so well !

    And yes the thing about everybody is that we all look at the world in different ways, and we all see different colours, its very surprising we manage at all !

    All the best
    Harriet Brigdale

    Harriet,

    I’m thrilled to find you here. Your work is absolutely terrific, and I hope I guided at least a few people your way.

    We do have a bit of a problem accepting our own variety from time to time, don’t we? Still, in the midst of it all there is loveliness – your work is proof of that!

    best regards,
    Linda


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