The Influence of Place

I write about place again. Are we shaped by the places where we have lived? Can the cities and countries where we have spent some time influence the sort of person we become? These questions loom large in my thinking about the role of place in our life.

In the Opinion section of The New York Times this morning six writers ask how Barack Obama has been influenced by the places in which he has lived—Indonesia, Honolulu, Chicago and Occidental, Columbia and Harvard Universities.

The editors write: “We are shaped by the places we have lived. And Barack Obama has lived in a lot of different places. His memoir “Dreams from My Father” recounts formative years spent in Indonesia, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York City, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chicago. How might these places have helped to mold the man who will be the next president of the United States? What might he have taken away from, say, Jakarta in 1967? Or Columbia University? Six writers who lived where Mr. Obama lived—when he lived there—reflect on those questions.”

Endy Bayuni writes that “Anyone going to a public school in Jakarta would have had early exposure to a vast array of cultures.” By “growing up respecting cultural and religious differences probably helped pare him for his return to the United States, a society still divided by race.”

Lois-Ann Yamanaka writes that he was similarly affected by the years in spent in Honolulu where the cultures are both diverse and stratified. Margot Miffin suggests that the years he spent at Occidental College taught him the key values the college promoted—critical thought and social justice.

At Columbia where he completed his undergraduate degree, Kevin Baker suggests Obama read everything he could get his hands on and that being in New York “taught Barack Obama how indomitable people can be, even in a city that has been written off…It was a poorer town then, a harder one, but still a place of vaulting ambition, of indelible beauty. We thought we could do anything. We felt such pride to be there.”

John Matteson writes that the major lessons Obama learned at Harvard Law were “the finitude of one’s own powers; the twin, paradoxical necessities of self-reliance and interdependence; and the humanity that comes when one finds oneself a long way from perfection, and then finds new ways of striving….He appears to have learned that he, to a degree quite rare, possessed the confidence, the serenity and the supreme resilience to accomplish goals to which he may have feared he was not equal.”

Finally, Aleksandar Hemon his days in Chicago surely taught Obama the “gruff solidarity of survival [that] is an essential part of living in Chicago….What Mr. Obama should have learned living in Chicago is that it takes far more than gut feeling and bulling, far more than fuzzy-warm nationalism and fantasies of greatness, to run a country as vast and complicated as Chicago is a city.”

Indeed, each of these authors conclude more generally that place exerts its influence in terms of what a person learns from the most salient features where he or she has lived. Perhaps what makes Barack Obama’s experiences so distinctive is that he has lived in an extremely wide variety of places, places where he has been exposed to situations that have given him the opportunity to learn a rare combination of extraordinarily valuable lessons. He has clearly learned them well.