Statisticians tell us that, around the world, somewhere over 150,000 people—men, women, and children—die, on average, each and every day. Most of us, of course, pass away unnoticed and unmourned by all but our relatively small circles of family and friends and colleagues and neighbors. Some people die all alone. Some deaths are the stuff of major news stories. Some unleash great tides of mourning and catharsis, with grand state funerals and public wailing and weeping, and great gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts.
Perhaps you saw some of the footage coming out of
following the death of its “Great Leader” Kim Jong Il on December 17. It was rather bizarre stuff, even by North Korean standards. Men and women seemed to compete with one another in expressing their outward grief. There was crying and screaming and rolling on the ground. All for a second generation dictator who had kept his nation in thrall for the 18 years he was in power; who had quartered absolutely no opposition; who had cut off his nation from the outside world; who had led a life of indulgence and comfort while hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of his people starved. North Korea
It is one of those fascinating juxtapositions of history that within a day of the death of Kim Jong Il, another world leader of note passed away—thousands of miles from North Korea, in a small and rustic cottage in the mountains of northern Bohemia. For Vaclav Havel, too, there was mourning in the streets (though of a more restrained and dignified, and no doubt, more genuine, form than that which wracked North Korea); there was also a grand state funeral (with a few more world leaders making their way to Prague than to Pyongyang). There were news reports on CNN, and obituaries in the world’s newspapers.
But there, the similarities ended. For, to be sure, history could not have produced two more different leaders than Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel. The former was a tyrant and a thief, yet another exemplar of history’s dark night, evidence of that fundamental stupidity that stalks the deep recesses of our human nature. The other was, in my opinion, one of the truly great men of our century, a Renaissance man in a distinctly non-Renaissance age; a man who provided hope and inspiration to thousands over the course of his seventy-five years.
Havel that we remember this day; for tyrants come and tyrants go, but the example of a truly decent man (or woman) is a gift of God and a joy to our spirits.
Was he perfect? Hardly. No more than Dr. King was perfect, though, he, too, we remember as a beacon of our human race and of our human story.
In his personal life,
Havel could be stubborn and impatient; he not always faithful in his marriage; he a bit overly fond, at times, both of the bottle and the cigarettes which ultimately shortened his life. In his public life, he made mistakes, too, as when he, like so many, got suckered into supporting the fiasco of Gorge W. Bush in . Iraq
The perfect soul has not stalked this earth for at least 2000 years, and dear Vaclav did not threaten that record. Not even close. No, sometimes we admire the people we do because their imperfections draw their virtues into clearer focus. Their failings serve as a bridge linking us with them.
Such an unlikely candidate for the halls of honor,
Born into one of the leading families of
in 1936, he seemed destined for a life of privilege and comfort and ease, until the Communist takeover in 1948 confiscated his family’s property and denied him a college education. He found work as a carpenter’s assistant, but suffered from extreme vertigo, so couldn’t climb ladders without taking his life into his hands. Reassigned to a scientific laboratory, he studied at night to get a high school diploma, but was then drafted into the army, where he was assigned to a unit that specialized in mine clearing. Prague
But then, after being discharged from the army in 1959, his father used his old connections to get his son a job as a stagehand at one of
’s vaudeville houses. From there, he moved to the avant garde Theatre on the Balustrade, which produced Prague Havel’s first play, The Garden Party, in 1963.
The rise to power in
of reform Communists like Alexander Dubcek, with their dreams of building “socialism with a human face”, brought Czechoslovakia Havel’s satires of the system to the fore. His position in society rose, and he was even allowed to visit for six weeks in the spring of 1968. Within weeks of his return to his homeland that summer, however, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into New York City Wenceslas Square, and the “Prague Spring” was brought to a crashing and tragic halt.
In place of Dubcek and the reformers, the Soviets installed a dreary regime of “normalization” in
under the leadership of an old-line Communist named Gustav Husak. Most Czechs and Slovaks seemed resigned to the blow that history had dealt. They stopped taking any interest in public affairs, and retreated back into their own private lives. For their part, Husak and his cohorts reasoned that if people felt as though their living standards were improving, they wouldn’t seek after political freedom any longer. Consumer goods were imported from abroad and sold in state-owned shops. A dull and dreary complacency seemed to settle over the entire country. Czechoslovakia
Havel realized that his very survival as a writer, as a creative human being, depended upon freedom and the free flow of ideas. Soon, he and a few other of the country’s banned writers began to meet informally in each other’s homes, often at Hradacek, Havel’s country cottage north of Prague (the house in which he died, ultimately). At these gatherings, these men and women would share a meal and discuss a wide range of subjects. They would distribute among themselves type-written manuscripts of their latest writings. These self-published samizdat were the country’s only alternatives to the official literary works of the government’s publishing houses. The “dissident” movement in had been born. Czechoslovakia
“Dear Dr. Husak,” the letter began.
Havel told Husak that, beneath the calm facade of life in , there was a deep fear that crept “like the invisible web” of a “hideous spider” through the whole of society. This fear, though not as harsh and brutal as the terror of the Stalinist period, nevertheless had the same kind of deadening effect on people’s spirits. Czechoslovakia
The present repression,
Havel continued, would have long-term negative effects on the nation’s well-being. A society based on fear and apathy would eventually become unable to express itself creatively at all. Havel then reminded Husak of the responsibility he, as both president and party leader, carried for the present spiritual crisis in their country:
“So far, you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outer appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.”
So the die was cast, and the credo of the dissident was uttered in the most direct and unflinching terms.
Havel paid for his dissent—not with his life, perhaps, as he might have in Stalinist or Nazi times (or as he might have had he been a North Korean addressing his letter to Kim Jong Il)—but with one jail term after another; with constant surveillance and harassment at the hands of the authorities; with severe limitations on his freedom of movement and expression, by powerful men who would not let such “troublemaking” go unchecked.
But in another letter he wrote around this same time (a few years before, actually), this one to Alexander Dubcek, the great reformer whom Husak had toppled, Havel had implored Dubcek not to recant his former positions, but to hold fast to them, though all seemed lost.
Havel went on to remind Dubcek that, in the long sweep of history, that ideas which once seemed discredited eventually can become more powerful than ever. Though the freedom and decency of the Prague Spring had been forced underground, Havel wrote, those ideals would remain alive in the hearts of their nation’s people and would come to flower again someday.
In less than twenty years, Havel and Dubcek would be embracing on the stage of the Magic Lantern Theater in
, and toasting each other with champagne, as Husak and his minions surrendered their hold on power. Prague
If it wasn’t for the troublemakers, this human story of ours would not progress. It has been said that “Well behaved women do not make history”, nor do any of those who refuse to stick out their necks in defense of unpopular ideas. It is usually the children of those who stoned the prophet who use those same stones to build monuments in the prophet’s memory. Even though history is not a long and inevitable progression onward and upward forever, we can affirm, with the great Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker (whom his more staid and respectable colleagues in the Unitarian ministry often derided as a “troublemaker”, too) -- and with Dr. King who used his words more than a century—that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends inexorably toward justice.”
It bends toward the just because there are men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit who choose not to live for themselves alone.
Men and women like Parker and Dr. King—and John Brown and Rose Parks—and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman—and the hundreds and hundreds we don’t remember, who lit the light of freedom in this American land, and kept it lit with their lives.
Men and women the world over who defended truth, who refused to accept the Big Lies of their own day. Men and women like Havel, and Sakharov, and Lech Walesa. Like Mandela, and Steven Biko, and Oliver Tambo, and Helen Suzman.
And in our own land, in days that some of us still remember, add the names of Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister killed in Selma in 1965; and Viola Liuzzo (a Unitarian Universalist lay woman) and Emmet Till, and Medgar Evers, and Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, and all the others lynched and gunned down and beaten to death and dumped into ditches by the side of the road, because they would not—could not—accept an evil and unjust status quo.
On this King Weekend, let is remember people like
’s brave voice of freedom, Aung San Suu-kyi. People like Sophie and Hans Scholl and the other students of Burma and Munich and other German cities who defied history’s most hateful regime armed only with the courage of their own convictions. Men like Franz Jaggerstatter, a simple Austrian farmer, who dared to stand as the only man in his entire town to vote “No” to the German takeover of his country. Ulm
So great a cloud of witnesses encompasses us on our human journey. And make no mistake that often those who stood in solitary witness to the evils of their day, were sore afflictions to those who were comfortable and powerful and seemed to have it all.
But everything can change on a new year’s day. That is, often, because there are those among us who dare to make trouble. Men and women, sometimes with extraordinary talent, sometimes not, somehow inspired by a spark from heaven, or by the light of truth in their own souls, to put aside the easy well-worn path of lukewarm living, and find within themselves a little more love, a little more courage, a little more responsibility, a little more hope.
Another of Vaclav Havel’s favorite mottos was this: "Pravda a láska musí zvítězit nad lží a nenávistí.“ For those of us who don’t know Czech, that means: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.”
So it must. But it will only happen, though, if we make it so.