Powerlessness. Helplessness. What can you do? I’ve been writing about the feeling and how people respond to it lately, trying to get at the root of what people don’t really talk about when they dance their way around the issues of the day. Little did I realize that events would conspire to make me feel terrible for even bringing it up.
Yesterday’s earthquake in Haiti is almost certainly going to be one of the worst natural disasters of our lifetime. It may seem like just another far away place, another poor nation that always seems to be on the receiving end of history. I’ve long known just enough about Haiti to feel as though I was watching it all unfold from a distance barely safe enough.
I was a kid in Miami, and I had a few friends who were from Haiti. I’m not sure what happened to Maurice or Jacque, as I lost touch with so many people as I moved on in life. I got to know just enough about them to hear stories about terrible poverty and what it means to be on the run from the Ton-Tons Macoutes, but I never knew what to make of the stories. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
We had a project when I was in High School where we studied how garbage could be turned into methane, more or less natural gas, to be used as a fuel for cooking and perhaps industrial processes. The goal was to provide a simple system that could be used in Haiti, an island stripped of wood long ago by the desperate population. We were able to make it work, but I never knew what was done with the system. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
There was a morning when a boatload of Haitians capsized off the coast, and our Boy Scout troop happened to be camping nearby. We were drawn to the beach by the sight of Palm Beach County Sherrif’s disco lights blazing, only to be told it was just another incident of “Black Tide”. There was nothing anyone could do but stack the bodies up like a scene from “Roots”. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I could count on that bored voice on the intercom in Miami Airport that always told me I was home by reciting messages in one continuous bored voice, moving without care between English and Spanish. One time when I went to let the sureness of it wash over me and tell me I was home, another voice came on the intercom – in Creole French. Home was telling me something I certainly couldn’t understand. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
When I counted transformers and connections for Florida Power & Light in Lemon City, it took me a while to realize why people seemed to run away from me. I had to realize what a white guy in a white shirt carrying a clipboard might mean to people who were never sure just who might be after them for the simple acts of getting by and surviving. I learned to just do my job and smile as earnestly as if I really meant it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
When the earth moves there is nothing any of us can do. We’re all powerless when our terribly small size has to stand up to the motion of something as big as the Caribbean Plate. There are other times when events conspire to make us feel even smaller, telling us just enough of the story that we have to fill in the details with our imagination.
I’d like to think that I learned how to face powerlessness with the dignity and stoicism written on the soul of every Haitian I’ve ever seen, but I know that’s not quite true. What I can tell you is that as surely as low measures high and black colors white, I have gotten a tiny clue about what it means to be truly powerless.
At the very least, I have almost no tolerance for whining and self-pity that accommodates a lot of what passes for politics in the USofA. If I seem harsh from time to time, please forgive me. I do know better – a lot better than I often let on. I learned it from a distance just safe enough that I could exercise my own cowardice and not become too terribly involved. But if you want to know something about what it means to be powerless and still be alive, get to know Haiti. They have a lot to teach us all, if we’re willing to learn it.