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
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.