03/23/2008 11:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Real Challenge: Shifting the Collective Consciousness

"Most men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and continue as if nothing happened." -- Winston Churchill

Churchill's words about the human propensity to ignore the truth that is right in front of us reminds me of the mainstream media's response to Senator Obama's speech on race. The speech was filled with profound truths, and yet so many in the media -- interviewers, newscasters, and pundits alike -- have merely picked up where they left off, continuing as if nothing happened.

But something did happen, something profound. In years to come, the speech Obama gave this week will be ranked among the most significant in our nation's history. Like Lincoln's Gettysburg address, John F. Kennedy's exhortation to "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," or Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" vision of a unified America free of bigotry and hatred, historians will view Obama's speech as an eloquent address producing effects far greater than "just words" ever could. His nuanced truth-telling about race in America, at a pivotal point in our history, offers all Americans a choice:

Will we just pick ourselves up and continue as if nothing happened? Or will we rise to the challenge and finally, as a nation, begin to talk about race in a way that heals, not hurts? Will we use this moment to bring about real change or will we use it to keep replaying the same old tapes of anger, bitterness, and resentment that have not united, but rather, divided us?

Not only did Obama's speech -- at once personal and intellectual -- reveal some of the subtle complexities of American race relations; it also revealed that Obama is the only candidate in this election who even comes close to understanding the underlying mechanics of societal change. Not just how to create policy changes in Washington, but how to create the shifts in collective attitudes and beliefs that are needed to enable more fair, just, and effective policies to take hold. This is the hidden power of words, and of authentic truth-telling. Together, they can change the collective consciousness.

Barack Obama's uniqueness as a politician is that he understands that real change involves a change in consciousness; and he is gifted at bringing it about
. The challenge he now faces is the age-old dilemma encountered by anyone who has the potential to move a group or nation to a new level of awareness: How do you introduce to a collective a profound shift in attitude, belief, and understanding -- and not be silenced or marginalized in the process?

Typically, powerful, authentic leadership or new ideas that threaten the status quo evoke reptilian-brain survival responses from the "powers that be" -- be they political or religious authorities, scientific and medical establishments, or modern news media. Consider Galileo, who was put under house arrest and silenced by the Church for asserting that the Earth revolved around the Sun; or Martin Luther, who was forced into hiding for proclaiming his religious views; or the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, gunned down and imprisoned by Chinese authorities for demonstrating on behalf of human rights.

The masses, although sometimes at the forefront of consciousness shifts, nonetheless also have a long tradition of rejecting opportunities to lift their consciousness. The Christian story of Easter offers a timely example. On Palm Sunday the crowd hails Jesus as King of the Jews. Only a few days later, they demand that he be crucified. In the Christian tradition, the triumph of Christ was of course that he rose again, thereby profoundly shifting the consciousness of all "who have ears to hear."

This story of resistance to transformational change, followed by eventual triumph, has replayed itself throughout human history. Individuals with high ideals, vision, and a capacity to communicate important truths to others manage to be left alone initially -- until they come out from under the radar. Then the gatekeepers of the collective consciousness step in to swat them down.

Eventually, however, a consciousness shift does occur, simply because it must. Consciousness cannot remain static forever.

A legitimate role of gatekeepers is to examine a potential shift in consciousness to be sure it will benefit the whole. Gatekeepers may rightly stall it long enough to ask reasonable questions, in order to vet the change before it spreads too far, knowing that any shift in consciousness will change our ways of thinking and believing, our very way of life.

The trouble comes only when the human mind cannot discern between legitimate vetting of a new potential shift and survival-response reactions to a threat to the status quo. When the latter occurs, humanity's familiar pattern repeats itself: two steps forward, one step back. In this way, we make slow and plodding progress, as a nation and as a species.

But every now and then a bright light shines. Those who recognize that light are drawn to it. They see it, hear its message, and welcome it into their midst. They allow it to call forth the better nature in themselves. And if humanity is lucky, there are enough visionary representatives among the people to produce a leap in the consciousness of a nation, perhaps the world. In such cases, the usual patterns of plodding gain don't hold; instead, significant advances in political, scientific, religious or other realms occur: the civil rights and women's movements in the United States, glasnost in the USSR, the end of apartheid in South Africa. Even the radical reduction in patient infections -- brought about through the simple practice of washing hands before surgery -- required a collective shift of consciousness within the medical profession, which had initially resisted the idea.

Barack Obama's challenge is to lift the consciousness of the people -- and still remain in the game. Although profoundly skilled at the change game, he cannot do this alone. Success will require a genuine shift of consciousness in the people he hopes to lead.

This is why so many Obama supporters are so profoundly committed to this election. They are not merely swooning over a cult figure. They are responding to the call to go higher, wider, deeper, truer. They know it is only a leap of consciousness that will produce the depth of change the world now seeks.

Obama's remarkable success thus far suggests that we may indeed be approaching a tipping point in our collective psyche. The people of our nation may perhaps be ready to "tip" to a higher level. But will the gatekeepers of the consciousness let the new consciousness break through?

Each of us, like the media commentators and reporters, is a gatekeeper. Each of us is part of the collective psyche. And each of us now has a choice to make. Having stumbled over the truth, will we just pick ourselves up and continue as if nothing happened? Or will we seize this opportunity and assist the leap to a new level of consciousness--in ourselves and in our nation?

Will we let the truths Obama has been speaking be seen and heard for what they are? Will we help our country turn to dialogue and respectful examination of these truths? Will we dare to continue the conversation about race that Obama has begun? Will we stand with him in this pivotal moment? (And will we let the media and others know where we stand?)

Or will we let this messenger's voice be trivialized and marginalized, drowned in the din made by those who are missing the point?

What kind of gatekeepers will we be?

Pamela Gerloff is co-author, with Robert W. Fuller, of Dignity for All: Rankism Unmasked (forthcoming, Spring 2008).