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Barack Obama's Teachable Moments

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Sigmund Freud has described what women want. He was wrong. What Michelle Obama has with her husband is what women want. That is a husband who is capable of reflection, who learns from his mistakes, and who does not feel weak and demeaned by realizing he has been wrong.

What works for Michelle also works for our country. A case in point is President Obama's recent use of the word "stupidly" to describe police action. Unless you have been in Rip Van Winkle mode for the last several days, you know about Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was cuffed by police Sgt. James Crowley in an incident of utter confusion and misunderstanding when the Sergeant accused a man locked out of his house of attempting to break in. What led to hot-tempered confrontation and later debate, one that the president weighed in on, was the fact that the man coming home to a door that would not budge was black.

Depending on experience with police and prejudice, most either applauded the president's word choice, seeing it as brave and accurate. Or they seethed, viewing it as disparaging to men and women who daily put their lives on the line.

Soon after the president's comment Cambridge police union members held a news conference calling on President Obama to apologize, and Sgt. Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, accused the president of directing the "right adjective" to the "wrong party." Nonetheless, Mr. Gates contended that he was a victim of racism.

After discussing the reactions to his comments with his wife and close friends, the president telephoned both men involved in this incident and told the nation that he regretted contributing to "ratcheting...up" a situation involving "two good people." He invited the two men to join him for a beer in the White House, where their conversation can continue.

Obama has framed this explosive event as one of opportunity, a possible "teachable moment," one that he used successfully through careful self-reflection before offering it to all of us. Obama has, as we know, explained that before becoming famous he would often have trouble finding a cab in Manhattan. We know, too, that while his white maternal grandmother sacrificed for him and cherished him, her reaction to black men could be disturbingly negative. The balance of the president's remarks, explanations and expressed regret following the upheaval shows a realization that his first reaction was based on personal experience. Later, he described both a police officer with "a fine track record on racial sensitivity" as well as "interactions between police officers and the African-American community" that "can be fraught with misunderstanding." With such honest remarks he shows that each of us, molded by formative events, develops a lens through which we see the world. And in admitting the mistaken use of an unfair and prejudiced word he tells us that this lens, for him and all of us, can sometimes be a detriment to reasoned assessment.

In a similar vein, President Obama has shared his belief with our world neighbors that "reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future." Our president has told European allies that "American has shown arrogance," the Muslim world that "we have not been perfect," the Americas that "at times we sought to dictate our terms" and the entire world that America "went off course" in the War on Terror. Further, he has described Guantanamo as setting back "the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world."

What Barrack Obama has framed a "teachable moment" therapists often refer to as a "corrective emotional experiences." This opportunity is critical in personal relationships as well. Intimate sharing is of course joyous. I will never forget the newly married friend who called me to say that when she forgot a lunch date with her husband due to a work emergency he completely understood. "My parents would have screamed and stopped talking to me for days if that had happened," she confided. in addition to its joy, intimacy also leads to conflict, far better discussed than ignored. Since men and women often think in ways that baffle, confuse and frustrate the other, the art of apology (and humor) when patience wears thin is a must for both sexes.

In far more dangerous waters, if one partner hurts another through betrayal, lies or manipulation, only sincere apology can lead to possible healing. In cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse in a family, owning the behavior and apologizing is the greatest hope for healing, for both the one brutalized and his or her assailant.

Barrack Obama innately understands the necessity for self-reflection and taking responsibility for one's choices in one's personal life and beyond. While his enemies and critics may view our president's reflective leadership style as weak capitulation, his wife, most women and wise men in our country and beyond understand how misguided and ill informed these critics are.

Babies and bullies, who always need to be right -- or else, fail in marriage, even when one partner pretends that all is well. And as "leaders" in any endeavor, they create danger and muddle. Mature leadership necessitates the ability to listen carefully, to see that well-motivated people can be both right and wrong, and to balance pride with humility. It necessitates the ability to see that your own lens can be faulty, that you may have erred, and to make necessary amends. Demonstrating this ability, as Barack Obama does with care and sincerity, reflect "teachable moments" of the highest possible quality.

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