When we talk about “orientation”, we tend to mean either a process of getting to know the ropes when starting a university or training course, or the general direction of our sexual desires. While both are important, neither quite gets to the heart of the word. To put it another way, what puts the “orient” into “orientation”?

The poet and priest John Donne was clear about the connection when he wrote his great and sombre meditation “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”. For the prayerful Christian or Muslim, true orientation means facing towards either Calvary, the site of Christ’s crucifixion, or the Kaaba in Mecca (following the prophet Mohammed’s decision to change the direction of prayer); devout Jews face towards the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. At this point it gets a bit tricky geographically, but clearly, if you are anywhere to the west of either Jerusalem or Mecca, this means you will be facing east.

For Donne, the metaphysical poet who loved paradox, riding westward when he should be facing east is a sign of disorientation. The soul, which should be guided by devotion, is drawn instead by pleasure and business (plus ça change), and finds its true orientation only rarely.

Donne knows his orientation, where he should be facing, by the fact that he is heading in entirely the wrong direction. With nimble if masochistic wit, he finds an excuse, offering his back for punishment. “Burn off my rusts and my deformity,” he cries in a line that still startles with its violent yearning; “Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,/ That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.”

You might find Donne’s desire to be punished and corrected as distasteful as his focus on the crucifixion is unrelenting; but I find his admission of the pain and distress of disorientation extremely moving. Not just individuals but whole societies can become disoriented, according to the French journalist and writer Jacques Monin, whose recently published book The Shipwreck of Britain is a scathing denunciation of Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite Britain’s worship of financial values at the expense of all others.

For a long time now we’ve been hearing about the problem of “disaffected youth” – that is, young people who are out of love with or turned off by the values of society, who turn away from it, into either listlessness or violence. You could say that these young people are disoriented as much as disaffected – that they don’t know where to turn, or to face, and so they turn their faces away or cover them with hoods. No one finds it comfortable to be disoriented; it is a disturbing and disempowering experience. Authoritarian social reformers and commentators call for stiffer punishments to force them into line. But what if they were at least partly right – they smelled a rat, something rotten in the state?

Barack Obama’s remarkable autobiography Dreams from My Father is a story of disorientation and reorientation. Obama as a child and young man was faced with problems of orientation more extreme and confusing than those most people confront. There were geographical extremes – moves with his mother to the far west of America and then to the far east (Indonesia), while his father was drawn back to his society in Africa. Which way should he face? Then there was a problem of racial orientation, which surfaced when he went to college in California. Should he reject one half of his heritage to be accepted by the brothers and sisters who identified exclusively with their African-American roots?

Not surprisingly, there were times when young Obama felt profoundly disoriented, as well as discouraged. Even when he became involved in community organising in the South Side of Chicago, the activity that would eventually lead to his astonishingly successful (so far) political career, his first efforts were dismal failures. He found in that microcosm just as many factional interests (competing churches) and petty power struggles and profound lack of trust as you could find in the wider world. And when he went back to Kenya, he uncovered a family tragedy going back generations, of misunderstanding and rejection involving fathers and sons, first wives and second wives, which would be enough to disorient anyone.

The remarkable thing about Obama is that he has used his disorientation so creatively. Most people when disoriented retreat fearfully into the familiar and the known, into tribes of the similarly disoriented. Obama has done precisely the opposite; he has set about opening and turning his face as widely as possible, not rejecting any elements in his own background, however difficult to assimilate, and showing himself ready to meet and talk to as many others as possible.

What President Obama seems to symbolise – and this is why so much hope has been vested in him – is an inclusive orientation. Perhaps it is nothing less than what Plato put forward in the most inspired passage of The Republic, the reorientation of the mind of humanity towards the idea of the good.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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