Every once in a while someone comes along who makes us see ourselves in a new way. Through their behavior, they hold up a mirror to our own impulses. For many of us, Barack Obama, through his words and actions, calls to the surface yearnings and energy we thought had died. On the other hand, we watch Fred "God hates Fags" Phelps or Nadya Suleman and think, ooh, that's nasty.
What do they have in common with Barack Obama?!
Here's what: they push us up against some of our deepest values and strongest feelings. They ask us what we stand for and what we're going to do about it.
If we're honest, the revulsion we feel toward Phelps and Suleman is partly because they confront us with our own darkness. Ordinary Evangelicals - decent loving people who are bound to homophobia by bibliolatry -- cringe at the horrid, hateful signs that Phelps waves in the name of their God. And for some, a wonderful thing happens. Sanctified alienation from gays gets overwhelmed by alienation from gay-haters. Love wins out.
For many people, a Phelps encounter offers a first visceral experience of what it's like to be on the receiving end of such loathing. In the same way that Hollywood takes sex and violence over the top so that we can get those adrenaline surges from the comfort of our couches, Phelps purifies and refines homophobia into such a vile spew that, even across our laptops and televisions, we can't help but feel it in our own bodies.
It is the intensity of Phelps that gives him the power to call us out of our armchairs. This week -- in an incident that rippled across the country -- Kansas high school students rallied around their gay friends, holding signs of affirmation and love. What's the matter with Kansas? Maybe not so much as some people think.
Suleman's biomedical exploits also have rippled across the country. She hit a nerve we didn't know we had. Lurid curiosity, revulsion, indignation, child-empathy, nurturance and outrage -- these are powerful emotions, and they've raised powerful questions about right and wrong. How many is too many? Who is responsible? What do those children -- with their likely disabilities -- deserve in terms of care? What do all children deserve in terms of care? Who decides?
We may grieve the harm caused by people who blunder through life at extremes. But we should also thank them. Because most of the harm done in the world isn't done by Phelps's or Sulemans. It's done by people like you and me with our ordinary fears and blind spots and pursuit of what we want. And they help us change.
From the dedication page of Lon Po Po, A Red Riding Hood Story by Ed Young: "To all the wolves of the world for lending their good name as a tangible symbol for our darkness."
Follow Valerie Tarico on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ValerieTarico