It's been an interesting few days, in terms of deaths and thinking about words and ideas and truth. I've been intrigued by all the people in North Korea mourning the death of their "dear leader." I know that in a totalitarian regime much of that emotion is fake, but still, the newscaster breaking down into tears? Was that emotion fake? Did the newscaster just not know about the atrocities committed by the dear leader? Did the newscaster know that a gun was offstage ready to shoot, if the proper emotions weren't shown?
What a difference in leadership style Vaclav Havel offered with his insistence on the truth and how to live life, even if one must tolerate totalitarianism. I've been wondering if the difference was because Havel was a playwright. If we elected a poet into high office, would we get a different governing style?
It reminds me of an exercise I used to do with my students. I've always told my students that they should plan what they would do in leadership positions, because they may very well find themselves there some day, and it might be sooner than they think. I tell them about Nelson Mandela, and that the reason that he was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail (more years than most of my students have been alive) planning for what he would do if he took over the country. He didn't nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were jailed with them.
Then I give them a copy of an interview (in the fabulous book We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews) with Jello Biafra which has this challenge: "It's time to start thinking, 'What do I do if I suddenly find myself in charge?'" (page 46 of the first edition). Many of my students find this idea to be a wonderful writing prompt, even as they're doubtful that they would ever be allowed to be in charge of a national government.
As I watch the latest wranglings by the House, I can't imagine that our government could get much worse. But then I think about totalitarian regimes, and I remember, oh yes, there's something much worse that ineffectiveness.
Anne Applebaum wrote a great essay about Havel for today's The Washington Post. She writes:
"In this essay (‘The Power of the Powerless’), Havel didn’t talk about marches or demonstrations. Instead, he asked the inhabitants of totalitarian countries to 'live in truth': that is, to go about their daily lives as if the regime did not exist, to the extent that was possible in societies where the state ran all businesses and all schools, owned most of the property and banned free speech and free press. By the late 1980s, 'living in truth' was widely practiced across central Europe. The first time I went to Poland in 1987, I stayed with friends. According to the law, I was supposed to register my presence in a private home with the police. 'We don’t do that,' my friends told me. 'We don’t believe the police have the right to know who stays with us.' I didn’t register — and because thousands of other people didn’t either, that law became unenforceable.
But Havel proposed more than mere civil disobedience. He also argued in favor of what we would now call civil society, urging the inhabitants of totalitarian states to found small institutions — musical groups, sporting groups, literary groups — that would develop the 'independent life of society' and prevent their members from being totally controlled from above. This, too, was widely practiced, in Prague’s famous underground philosophy seminars, in the illegal printing presses all across the communist world, in Poland’s independent 'Flying University,' and, most successfully, in Poland’s independent trade unions."
What a great vision--to inspire the people to live as if the life they wanted had already arrived. It's what I believe we find in the best religious traditions, which tell us that we don't have to wait for Heaven to begin to create the Kingdom of God--it's already underway, and we can take part. It's an exciting new--yet ancient--development in contemporary theology. Books like N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope or Brian D. McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus or Rob Bell's Love Wins argue that Jesus didn't come to get us to Heaven, but to show us that we could begin living like we're in Heaven right now, before we die.
Even if we're uncomfortable with these ideas in the political arena or the theological arena, they might make sense in other areas of our lives. What if we lived our work lives as if we've already got the great job? What if we lived our writing lives as if we already were the kind of writers we wanted to be? We might waste less time in feeling jealous or inadequate or any of those other emotions that so often wreck us.
I'm also keenly aware that for every revolution that goes well, like the one orchestrated by Havel, there are others that are squashed, like the Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square. Still, it's fear of the machine guns (real and figurative) that keeps us from our full potential.
Wenceslas Square or Tiananmen Square? The Kim Jong Ils of the world hope that the memory of Tiananmen Square will leave us quaking in fear. The Vaclav Havels and Archbishop Romeros and Dorothy Days and Nelson Mandelas and Emma Goldmans and Archbishop Tutus of the world inspire us to keep our eyes on the possibilities of other squares and happier endings.
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