Have you heard of Václav Havel? I suspect not. We know Gandhi and Mandela, but it’s rare for Americans to be aware of remarkable people from places like Czech Republic or Chile or Ireland. I mention these places because they are all places where poets and authors held positions in the government. Poet Pablo Neruda was a Senator in the Chilean government in 1948 and held various diplomatic posts in his lifetime. The poet W.B. Yeats was a Senator in The Irish Free State in 1922. And author Václav Havel was the President of the Czech Republic.
Havel began his career as a playwright, but soon discovered that the Communist rulers in Czechoslavakia found his ideas threatening and he was thrust into politics. As he describes it:
You do not become a ''dissident'' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.
And so he was blacklisted by the government, joined and helped organize various resistance movements, spent various stints in jail. When Communism fell in the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, he was elected the first President of a free Czechoslavakia. After the Czech-Slovak split of 1993, he became the first President of the Czech Republic. Throughout his office, he stood for humanitarianism, environmentalism, civil action and a genuine democracy. (You can read more in the usual sources for information these days.)
I first became aware of him by stumbling into a quote that caught my attention:
Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
In the words of the Quakers, this “spoke to my condition.” In my tiny world of the Orff approach to education, I found something that made such perfect sense, even though the world was ill-prepared to receive it, support it, understand it. But enough of the world recognized it’s power to allow me to spread the good news and though its premises are entirely subversive to those who want to control and dominate and hurt with their heavy shoulders of power, it’s so far below the radar that no one thinks of putting me in jail. (And if they did, I’d definitely start a body music club.)
But back to Havel. This election season is precisely about the choice between Hope and Hate and I need not elaborate on who represents what. We have both within us and the drama is whether our need and our capacity for hope will vanquish our small-minded hate and despair. (I was going to say “hope will trump hate,” but that verb is forever changed for me now!). Havel again:
I feel that the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence.
Isn’t it inspiring that someone who talks like this ended up rising as a leader in his country? Obama certainly has come of these qualities, Roosevelt and Lincoln did, articulate thinkers and philosophers who look at the larger human condition beyond the mere muscles of power, bringing poetry into politics and politics into poetry.
A few more quotes from this humanitarian leader to help get us up the stairs of a more loving and beautiful vision:
• Vision is not enough, it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.
• Isn't it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing absurdity.
• Hope is the deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times.
• All human suffering concerns each human being
• Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred.
May it be so.