Remembering Vaclav Havel (1936-2011)

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who was imprisoned under the Communist regime and later became the first president of a free Czechoslovakia, died today.  He was 75, and was at the very top of my list of people I would have liked to meet.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Havel was best known as a leading signatory of the Charter 77 document, which called on the Czechoslovakian government to live up to its own commitments on human rights.  The document was denounced and banned, and Havel was sentenced to repeated stays in prison, the longest lasting four years.  Charter 77 became the model for similar protest documents in other countries, most notably China’s Charter 08, for which Liu Xiaobo is currently imprisoned and was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

We know that the Wall eventually fell and that Havel was elected to lead his newly freed country.  However, he must have experienced long periods in which he doubted his efforts and sacrifices would ever bear fruit.  About these times, he wrote:

“Hope is not a feeling of certainty that everything ends well.  Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning.”

About the regime he struggled so long to unmask, he wrote:

“We are all involved: those who have created, in a greater or smaller way, this scheme, those who accepted in silence and all those who have become used to it subconsciously.”

About his decision to enter the fray as a politician, he said:

“You can’t spend your whole life criticizing something and then, when you have the chance to do it better, refuse to go near it.”

About himself, he wrote:

“Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not. ”

One of the most famous and important things Havel wrote was about his guiding philosophy living under an oppressive regime.  He said that he had decided to live and write “as if” he were free, and accept whatever happened.  He refused to self-censor out of fear — that was true slavery.  Many times, living and writing in China, I have thought about his words, both as an inspiration and as a challenge.  It is, needless to say, not easy.

Thank you, Mr. Havel.  You will be remembered, and missed.

This post originally appeared at An American Perspective From China and is posted with permission.