Recently deceased poet/playwright/politician Vaclav Havel’s influence on me was profound, especially in the late-1980s as my own personal outlook centred more and more on the sheer humanity of people and the responsibility of the political realm to respond to its importance.
When Havel died this week, I was touched more than I expected. I’ll come to the reason for that later.
You had to love Havel’s language and how his humility flowed through his authentic phrasing. When, as a prolific dissident, he was launched from the pen to the post of the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003), he responded with characteristic grace: “The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake.” Seriously, when was the last time we heard a politician say that?
Havel lived and spoke out in a difficult time and often suffered imprisonment as a result. He could overlook and forgive any human fault except the penchant for meanness and its application from high levels of power. He once described “dissent” not as some kind of alternative political outlook but instead as an individual’s insistence on his own humanity. I love that phrase – even more now that he has passed. He envisioned being human as doing things, even the most mundane of acts, as worthy of being accomplished with transparency and, always, honesty. He didn’t always expect political powers to practice such humility, but he expected them to permit people to live by the power and strength of their own consciences. Such moral lessons portrayed in his plays and in his positions came to define him in politics.
I was serious when asking when was the last time we experienced a politics like this in Canada? I had the privilege of hearing Lester Pearson use language similar in my home when he visited. Not once in those many times did I ever hear him label his political foes in the way we do today. Canadians had elected them too, and the system demanded that such choices be respected. More than once he said to my father that he wondered if his quiet strength as a diplomat would suit him for politics. It did, and the accomplishments of that quiet grace as Prime Minister still stand the test of time.
Which brings me back to my sadness of the last few days. I miss that kind of leadership and language. I missed it in Ottawa and still pine for it today. It’s actually not about respect, though that is vital, but, rather, about the effective ability to get things accomplished through divergent views. Just once I’d love to hear someone in politics stand up and use words like Havel’s: “Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.” Naturally, no one will say that today because our current politics feverishly puts present political effect over any long-term gain.
Vaclav Havel’s death reminded me again that I am lonely. In the midst of life with a terrific family, a remarkable food bank, comforting news from Africa, and the delight of being in my community, I miss the kind of language that challenges me to be a better person in character. We have all grown despondent over our national decline; even Conservatives repeatedly tell me there is no productive future when you spend all your time spreading political landmines.
Havel had his citizens behind him because they had spent years in repression. Yet even then courage could be a rarity, as when Havel famously wrote of the shopkeeper who placed a small sign is in window, among the onions and carrots, proclaiming, “Workers of the World Unite!” Havel reasoned that the owner was no revolutionary, but placed it merely “to get along in life.” It was one of so many small things the owner undertook that had the best chance of guaranteeing him a tranquil life.
He lamented that such individuals wouldn’t have the backbone necessary to restore his country. Perhaps that’s what we’re experiencing here in Canada. Parliament isn’t respected by its own government and people complain about it because … well, doesn’t everyone? We complain about poverty or the lack of action on climate change, and we might go so far as to put our name on an email list. But we must know it isn’t enough. Small businesses yearn for the opportunity to strut their stuff on an equal playing field, but they’ll never get the tax loopholes the larger companies do. We’ve put our own little respective signs in the window testifying to our worries, but we’ll proceed no farther.
Both in politics and out I have learned that the good people of Canada are actually worried about what’s going on in Ottawa – the polls show it, just as the banter in coffee shops amplifies it. We require leadership, and we know it – the kind that calls us to greatness in the big and small things. I have learned from experience what Havel wrote: “The deeper the experience of an absence of meaning – in other words, of absurdity – the more energetically meaning is sought.” The only way we can root out the “absurdity” is to move from the place of the small sign in our window to the recapturing our country, at whatever risk.
I miss Havel and I miss Lester B., but I’m comforted that an increasing number of Canadians are feeling the hunger again.