Vaclav Havel, Bon Voyage!
Maui, Hawaii, Sunday Dec 18
Martina came down to breakfast this morning in tears. She had stopped to glance at her Czech website on the way, and so learned that Vaclav Havel had died a few hours earlier. I’m not Czech, but hearing the news I felt like I could be. Some months ago I thought, a little too casually, that I would love to meet this man. I am enough in Prague now that I could already have tried. I didn’t know time was so short. He died in his sleep early today, surely some years sooner than would have been the case had he not dared to stand against the Soviet oppression of his country. He was a playwright who because he was loved became the president of Czechoslovakia and subsequently of the new Czech Republic.
Isn’t that amazing! No political gamesmanship, no wheeling and dealing, no contrived image, no pursuit of power. Simply a man who lived his love of truth and freedom with that rare courage and commitment that could guide his country out of the prison of communism, and do so without bloodshed! When the 18-day Velvet Revolution restored Czechoslovakia to its own people, he had to be asked to become president. Years later he told David Frost that it was the most difficult decision he ever had to make.
I imagine that Vaclav Havel found something of prison in the presidency. It wasn’t a role he would have chosen for himself, though he evidently did what he could to liven it up. Maybe in taking it on he saw the opportunity to inspire his countrymen to come alive again, to shake off the apathy with which human beings habitually anaesthetise their despair when things seem hopeless. He wanted the Czech people to find their hope again. He had never lost his and in that lay his magic. It came from a profound understanding. “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Thirteen years later he stepped down at the end of his second term as president of the Czech Republic. His choice to walk out on the soul-less machinery of politics was yet more reason to love him. Clearly, for Havel himself leaving politics was a real liberation. He was happy to return to his writing and for the remainder of his life he expressed his hope by supporting human rights activists around the world. Predictably, the presidency he relinquished fell into the clutches of the mediocre orthodoxy that today runs the Czech Republic. Next Friday the leaders of many nations will attend his funeral in Prague. I wonder how many of them got there by living Havel’s mantra that “truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred”.
Martina and I spent some of this morning in meditation with this man who feels to me like an unknown friend. I think it is how he is experienced by millions of people around the globe. Then I looked on the internet at what was happening in Prague – Wenceslas Square filling with men, women and children coming to light candles and pay tribute. The scene brought to mind a few words of Shakespeare. One playwright talking of another:
“His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’”
Sitting with Vaclav Havel in his death, as we pray for him I imagine his soul’s departing prayer for us: I can hear him gently asking, “Won’t you all please learn to live what you loved in me?”