“It’s as if we were playing for a number of different teams at once, each with different uniforms, and as though—and this is the main thing – we didn’t know which one we ultimately belonged to, which of those teams was really ours.”
I am drawn to wise and good people. If I have my choice, I will always choose to spend my time with people who ask deeper, harder questions, born of the reality of living in a very now-but-not-yet world, who at the same time are surprisingly kind and humble, showing courage about things that matter most.
So, Vaclav Havel. I never met him, and I have no idea what he was like as a friend, a husband, a colleague, so my impressions are from afar, which is dangerous. But he seemed to be an unusually wise and good man, someone who suffered and yet who didn’t become a cynic, or a stoic. He took the wounds of the world into his heart, and still kept at it, working at things that mattered to human beings and to history.
In an essay, “It Always Makes Sense to Tell the Truth,” he wrote this:
“I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate anything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative coordinates. And when this happened, man began to lose his inner identity, that is, his identity with himself. Along with it, of course, he lost a lot of other things, too, including a sense of his own continuity, a hierarchy of experiences and values, and so on. It’s as if we were playing for a number of different teams at once, each with different uniforms, and as though—and this is the main thing – we didn’t know which one we ultimately belonged to, which of those teams was really ours.”
The words were for the Czech people of the late 20th-century, so there is nothing in them that is necessarily about the questions and quandaries of the early 21st-century. But as I listen to the world around me, rumbling and boiling, in turmoil over the deepest questions of human life, of what it means to be a human being, I have gone back to Havel. His words here are as good as I have read about the air we breathe, now, human beings alive in this year and this month, June of 2015.
Ideas do have legs, and the most important ideas, the truest truths, are true for everyone everywhere— whether we are Europeans or Latin Americans, Asians and Africans, whether we call ourselves Americans or Canadians. Playwright though he was, Havel suffered his way through prison, living amidst a horribly malignant political upheaval for the first 50 years of his life— first the Nazis, and then the Communists —so for him, telling the truth mattered, for persons and for polities.
And somehow, somehow, the truth is twined together with what we believe about God and ourselves, a relationship the ancients have wrestled over for thousands of years. That we imagine otherwise, thinking we can create our own coordinates in our modern-becoming-postmodern world, is worth noting.
Havel did, wise and good man that he was.
(Photo of the mountains of Oregon, through an airplane window.)