On Powerlessness and the Liberian Presidency




By George Kronnisanyon Werner

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 17, 2004

During the year prior to his death, Jesuit Anthony de Mello spoke about the power of illusions. They shape our behavior, he noted, and influence the ways in which we think. De Mello illustrated his point with this simple example.

Well into a flight from New York to Toronto, De Mello was interrupted in his reading by an announcement from the plane’s pilot. “Look out the windows on the left,” said the voice on the loudspeaker, “You’ll see the border of the United States.” De Mello realized immediately that the pilot was mistaken. After all, you cannot see the border of the United States. Although the US border can be specifically delineated, it is an illusion; the creation of human imagination.
Illusions, though, help determine decisions that we make. Wars have been fought, for instance, over the location of borders and laws continue to bar some people from crossing over these imaginary lines. We have set up customs stations, employed border patrols, and erected fences - all to safeguard something that arguably exists only in our minds.
The same illusionary demarcations may exist in our minds as to who can or cannot become president of Liberia. There is a tendency among us Liberians, common and obvious enough, to estimate a person’s aptitude for a profession or for a career by listing his or her strengths. For example, Bonyonoh speaks well, possesses an able mind, exhibits genuine talents for leadership and debate; she would be an excellent lawyer or administrator. Beyan has recognizably good judgment, keen interest in scientific matters, obvious manual dexterity, and deep human concerns and convictions; he would make a splendid surgeon or architect.

The tendency is to transfer this way of thinking to electing the president of Liberia. Many Liberians estimate a presidential candidate by lining up his or her positive achievements and capacity for more. Because a candidate is God-fearing, socially adept, intellectually perceptive, has academic qualifications from well-known institutions of higher learning, possesses interior integrity, has sound common sense and displays habits of hard work, it is concluded that he or she will make a fine president.

I think that this evaluative methodology, as tested by our history, can be misleading. There is a different question that should be asked, one specific to the very essence of the Liberian presidency as we know it. This question has been brought to the fore in a pressing way by recent reports that George Weah et al may be eyeing the Liberian presidency. It is a question which requires non-traditional ways of looking at who can or cannot be president of Liberia. It is a set of questions which implies that human powerlessness is not necessarily a liability when it comes to leadership.
Is this candidate powerless enough to be president of Liberia? Is this man or woman deficient enough that he or she cannot ward off significant suffering from his or her life, so that he or she lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he or she feels what it means to be an average Liberian, vulnerable yet resilient? Is there any history of confusion, of self-doubt, of interior anguish? Has the candidate had to deal with fear, come to terms with frustrations, or accepted deflated expectations honorably?

These are critical questions, and they probe for powerlessness. Why? Because it is in this powerlessness, in this liability to suffering, in this interior lack, in this shared experiences of imprisonment, hunger, deprivation, war, death, dashed hopes and oppression that the efficacy of the Liberian presidency lies. Liberians should know their potential leaders, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and with whom they’ve associated themselves.

What do I mean by powerlessness and suffering? The powerlessness of which I write is the experience of a peculiar liability to suffering, a profound sense of inability to do and to protect: an ability, even after great effort, to perform or serve as one should want, to affect what one had determined, to succeed with the completeness that one might have hoped. It is this candid openness to suffering which issues in the inability to secure one’s own future, to protect oneself from any adversity, to live with easy clarity and assurance; and to ward off shame, pain, or even interior anguish.

Such powerlessness can limit or dampen a presidential aspirant’s horizons and expectations and accomplish pretty much what he or she would want. He or she can secure his or her perimeters and live without a sense of ineffectual efforts, a feeling of failure or inadequacy or of shame before what might have been. But if he or she cannot-either because of his or her history or temperament or task-then he or she experiences powerlessness at the heart of his or her life. This liability to suffering forms a critically important indication of whether or not a candidate will make a fine and compassionate leader.
For how can you lead a suffering people without having experienced suffering yourself? The experience of suffering relates us profoundly with other people. It allows us to feel with them the human condition, the human struggle, the darkness and anguish and even death, which call out for freedom and hope. For to be human is to experience a certain amount of suffering in life. It is hard for some within the Liberian political elite to understand the plight of the average citizen since many of them live in western cultures.

One of the most debilitating aspects of Liberian society is that we do not authentically admit, acknowledge or affirm the cost in a struggle involving every citizen and tribe, and almost never allow real fear and dissent to surface. Yet, most Liberians struggle to make a living, while wondering about their future and their sense of personal value in an exploitative, violence-prone political system. We must deal with the temptation to believe that life is without meaning for some, that actions are inconsequential, and that some Liberians are to be used for the progress of a privileged few.

Being a president does not mean, must not mean, that one is detached from all suffering, as if elected to deal with others as from a higher seat; it does not mean as well that the struggle for meaning and value and patriotism has been completed in one’s life, and that one now leads out of one’s strengths.

There is a collective consequence which flows from all this. Liberians must support one another in powerlessness and suffering. It would be absurd to maintain powerlessness and suffering, as described here, as essentially a part of leadership and then denigrate women, George Weah or those who are thought to be deficient and unsophisticated -allowing disagreements to become hostilities because of personal histories.

The sad fact stands that it is frequently no great trick to get Liberians to condemn one another. Wars, even personal wars, are terrible realities, and the most horrible of these are fought among the educated. For under the guise of the internet, under the rubric of peace deals, of tribal and religious affiliation or personal freedom, Liberians can slowly degenerate into pettiness, cynicism, hostility, and bitterness.

At a gathering recently of Jesuit Associates in Syracuse, New York, a colleague who heard that I had been writing this reflection handed me a classic comparison running through contemporary philosophy between Socrates and Jesus Christ, a judgment between them in human excellence. Socrates went to his death with calmness and poise. He accepted the judgment of the court, discoursed on the alternatives suggested by death and on the dialectical indications of immorality, found no cause for fear, drank the poison, and died. Jesus did something contrary. He was almost hysterical with terror and fear “with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death.” He looked repeatedly to his friends for comfort and prayed for an escape from death, and he found neither. Finally, Jesus established control over himself and moved into his death in silence and lonely isolation, even into the terrible interior suffering of the hidden divinity, the absence of God.

Was this because Socrates and Jesus suffered different deaths, the one so much more terrible than the other, the pain and agony of the cross so overshadowing the release of the hemlock? I believe that Jesus was a more profoundly powerless man than Socrates, more liable to physical pain and weariness, more sensitive to human rejection and contempt, more affected by love and hate. Socrates never wept over Athens. Socrates never expressed sorrow and pain over the betrayal of friends. He was possessed and integral, never overextended, convinced that the just man could never suffer genuine hurt. And for this reason, Socrates, one of the greatest and most heroic men who has ever existed, a paradigm of what humanity can achieve within the individual, was a philosopher. And for the same reason, Jesus of Nazareth was a leader - powerless, ambiguous, suffering, mysterious, and salvific.

The grassroots candidate should never be underestimated, undervalued or overlooked. So with us Liberians, a leader must be liable to suffering and powerlessness, powerless because he or she must become like those he or she leads.