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Political bodhisattvas?

Koert Vrijhof

Many people, too many people have an aversion against politics, even disgust. But politics in the sense of public government is an essential part of a developed society whatever libertarians or anarchists may say. So our goal as members of a civilized society is to get the quality of public government as good as possible.

There are and always have been men and women who stand in the frontline for a better society, especially a better government. Political heroes. Maybe not bodhisattvas, but in any case leaders, dedicated to the well-being of and with deep compassion with other persons.

Who are these leaders? What can we learn from them? What are their main similarities? Have they certain characteristics which can be stimulated in general or can be used as an example?

For these purpose I studied the lives of eleven contemporary great political leaders: Aung San Suu Kyi; Willy Brandt; Mohandas Gandhi; Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama; Dag Hammarskjöld; Václav Havel; Martin Luther King; Nelson Mandela; Rigoberta Menchú; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Gloria Steinem. In found several similarities in the lives of these – in so many aspects different - men and women, they:

  • · nearly all had strong mothers, devoted to their child(ren)
  • · conquered adversities, learned from them and succeeded to become a better person. They are aware that the outer culture of repression has an inner counterpart; they got a richer, refined inner culture. Their self-esteem increased.
  • · are able to put themselves in perspective, can laugh at themselves, can be humble, are basically relaxed.
  • · choose to strengthen democracy, as well as on a national level as in the organisations of their own; they regard democracy as a process, more than an institution.
  • · respect their opponents, learn from them, put themselves in their position.

A striking difference with their opposites, dictators and tyrants, are their fathers. Cruel rulers like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Ze Dong, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, Ceacescu, Shaka Zulu were heavily beaten, battered or neglected by their fathers. None of the fathers of the political heroes were like them.

There are, however, also less positive similarities between the selected eleven. As far as the male leaders are concerned, they had an uneasy or alienate relationship with their children (if there are children at all, the Dalai Lama, Hammarskjöld and Havel stayed childless). How severe the lack of attention and warmth in the case of a leader in relation to his children can be is intensely described by Ken Wiwa, the son of the murdered Nigerian hero Ken Saro Wiwa.

The relation between the leader and his wife is also often complicated. Havels 'Letters to Olga' gives a striking example of this.

Honest and humble leadership seems to include truthfulness. Although, leaders as FDR, MLK and Menchú have told stories which were at odds with the truth.

And all leaders had their difficulties in finding a capable successor. But that is a handicap all kind of leaders had to cope with.

I like to proceed with my study in cooperation with people who have also the wish to strenghten effective democratic leadership.

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