The word "passion" is quite in vogue in our time. We want to find work we are passionate about, we are passionate about our favorite causes, and we like passionate love stories. But when we consider the etymological meaning of the word, it casts itself in a different light: we get our English word from the Greek pathos, meaning "suffering". When you list your passions in terms of what you're willing to suffer for, the list tends to shrink somewhat.
On Sunday, the world lost a man who was passionate in the purest sense of the word: Vaclav Havel, best known in the West as the leader of the 1989 so-called Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, passed away peacefully with his wife at his side. After more than two decades of peaceful protest, often through his plays, Havel and others brought about the demise of the Communist leadership of his country without a single shot being fired. What many of us did not know is that Havel also suffered for his cause, spending four and a half years in a Czech prison for his opposition to the oppressive, Soviet-backed Communist regime of the 1960's.
Two things strike me about the man and his life. First, the fact that a nation would elect a playwright as president. Not a politician, not a businessman, not an economist, not a diplomat. A playwright. A writer. All playwrights are not the same, but good playwrights have at least one thing in common -- an understanding of human nature. Havel seemed to have a grasp on the fundamental drives, the aspirations, the strengths and weaknesses of 20th century mankind, and I find it nothing less than astonishing now, as I did then, that a nation would turn to an artist for leadership. I have long said that artists are the mouthpiece of culture, but it is rare when a people chooses to entrust its political well-being to a playwright. Unfortunately, his leadership was attenuated when his party was voted out and Czechoslovakia became two distinct nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The other thing of note about Havel is that he chose the high road, refusing to yield to the temptation to meet violence with violence. His commitment to the non-violent protest of injustice put him in the company of monumental figures such as Gandhi, King and Mandela, and he doggedly continued to believe and profess that it is actually possible to take the moral high ground, even in the realm of politics. For this he was often dismissed as out of touch with reality. Perhaps he was not the most astute politician, but he will and must always be remembered as a noble statesman who called his people, and indeed the rest of the world who would listen, to higher ground.