Sitting in the crowd at the Exel Center in St. Paul, MN Tuesday night there was something transcendent in the air. I was reminded of a passage from John Phillips' biography about the 1960's rock group, The Mamas and Papas, that said when the four of them were singing in harmony it was almost as if you could hear a "fifth voice." Tuesday night there was a similar emergent quality to what happened in the Exel Center as Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. As he spoke you could feel a kind of synergy developing between him and the crowd, a kind of entrainment that resulted in a feeling that you were being carried along by something greater than yourself. I imagine he experienced that phenomenon as well.
Obama is one of the most congruent speakers I have ever heard. Deeply connected with what he says, words both matter and mean something to him and it is easy to hear that when he speaks. He believes what he says, and it is this basic honesty that resonates with the audience. More importantly, it is the visceral experience, beyond the text, that enables him to connect with people like he did last night. Most people describe this encounter as inspiring, but it is more than that. It is a deeply felt, transpersonal experience, that Abraham Maslow talked about, in which we are transported beyond our own small, isolated sense of self. In that peak state there are feelings of wholeness, unity, and, of course, a connection with something greater than oneself. It is the direct experience of the "fifth voice" that Phillips talked about. Moreover, in this connection to a greater wholeness, we do not lose our own identity. Rather, our sense of "I" is integrated with the "We." In other words, people become engaged and carried along, not in spite of themselves, but beyond themselves. This is in marked contrast to a cult in which one's sense of individual identity is submerged and lost within the group.
Reducing this overall experience to words is difficult if not impossible. I think what I am talking about here is the human spirit, that ineffable part of each of us that makes us more than the sum of our parts. It is expressed through our generosity, our kindness toward others, that willingness without hesitation, that allows us to put others first, to make sacrifices for our loved ones and even strangers. It is the call to service, to volunteer, to serve others, to give of oneself without expectation of getting anything in return. Because at some level of our being, beyond all of our apparent differences, we recognize that that we are all connected in spirit, and that what we do for another we do for ourselves.
Obama's call to service is framed and captured in the Preamble to the Constitution, "We the people...in order to form a more perfect union...promote the general welfare, secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity...." It is transformative language that speaks to our higher good and asks us to sacrifice self-interest to something greater than ourselves, in this case the common good. Kennedy captured this notion in his now famous dictum "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Barack Obama makes that same call to each of us. He reminds us again of our basic nature that we are indeed one people, connected in spirit and capable of rising above our own limited sense of self. In the coming years we will need a leader who can engage us in this meaningful way and ask that we make sacrifices for the common good. It is one hope as we begin a challenging transition to a new way of living brought about by a growing scarcity of resources. At the Exel Energy Center Tuesday night, Obama gave each of us a glimpse into our higher nature and a sense that when all of us come together anything is possible.
Bud McClure is Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.