By Dr. Keith Ablow
The greatest gift of my training in psychiatry has been the ability my mentors nurtured in me to really listen to what people say. This is harder than it sounds.
It took me years to overcome the natural tendency to gloss over the very important things people say—the ones that might trigger anxiety or sadness or anger if focused upon clearly or at length.
This avoidance of hearing messages that people convey is a very human reaction when what they are saying is almost too big to take to heart.
The same dynamic explains why people fail to recognize predators even in the face of much data that they are unsafe, why they fail to hear the desperation in the words of a loved one who later goes on to commit suicide, why they fail to internalize expressions of genuine (and boundless) love from another person and why they fail to follow-up with questions about true revelations another offers about his or her deepest feelings and most powerful experiences.
It is as if the mind and soul are fitted with shock absorbers triggered only by the biggest bumps in the road—a kind of onboard, on call denial—so that special focus is required to register them.
I believe this internal shock absorber has prevented many Americans from really listening to the most significant messages President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have delivered.
One of these messages is that the Obamas are profoundly ambivalent about whether America and Americans have historically been a force for good or ill in the world. This is why the president has repeatedly apologized for America’s behavior, in a way that not only signals other nations that our leader is at best uncertain about our moral character, but may plant self-doubt about our decency in own population.
It is why the first lady honestly stated during the campaign that "for the first time in my adult lifetime" she was proud of her country.
It is why the president would remain in a church where the pastor has been quoted as saying, “God damn, America!” and would bring his children to that church to listen and learn.
These are not accidental facts. They are not meaningless. They encourage denial because they are so stark and so massive in scope that they make us not want to grapple with the inevitable conclusion that our country is being led by someone who isn’t so certain he likes his countrymen.
Another significant message from the president is that he is sincerely suspicious of businesses—large or small—unless those businesses are controlled by the government in a way that approximates government ownership of them.
This is what is meant by stating plainly that redistributing wealth is good, by teaching businesses to come to the trough to drink up bailout monies, by seeking oversight over which executives companies hire and how much they are paid and by burdening businesses with social agendas like “health care reform” and other red tape that can bring them to their knees.
Again, these are not accidental facts, nor meaningless. We can screen out the huge impact and import of them because they are almost unthinkable—constituting, as they do, this reality: Our commander-in-chief isn’t so sure he likes us, or our way of life. In fact, it certainly sounds, if you listen, to him, that he does not.
Americans are behaving a lot like the children I treat who grew up in homes in which their parents did not love them. They deny it. They do everything they can to believe, otherwise including wondering whether they themselves are to blame.
If we were deprived of denial, if we were willing to really listen and really be shocked, if we were willing to be wrong and wronged, we would have to admit that we elected a man to lead our country who just doesn’t express much love for it—or us.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a forensic psychiatrist.