Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #077. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Dec. 23, 2013; in print Dec. 24

I have six grandchildren, and a seventh due next month. The oldest, who was 5 in September, is close to my age, 6, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945.

The death of Nelson Mandela earlier this month has reminded me how my own sense of FDR depends for its emotional tone on what my parents and grandparents, who lived through his time, told me about him. They said, for instance, that in the depths of the Great Depression the sound of the president’s voice in his “fireside chats,” as much as what he said, was itself a source of hope.

I consider it a great privilege to have been a contemporary of Mandela, and also of two other world leaders whose stories have parallels to his: Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (or Burma) and the late Václav Havel of the Czech Republic.

This column is a memo to my grandchildren of what it has been like, in the midst of international chaos and domestic political stalemate, to be reminded by these three brave, imaginative and compassionate trailblazers that the renewal of human community is not beyond our reach. As St. Thomas Aquinas used to say, “If it has been done, it must be possible.”

To me, the most haunting feature of Mandela’s story is this: Before he walked out of prison Feb. 11, 1990, no one, apart from his jailers and fellow prisoners and a few officials he had recently met with, knew what he looked like. For 27 years, the apartheid regime had effectively scrubbed his face from public view.

Perhaps many expected him to be grim, defiant, even vindictive. But he emerged into the sunlight with a serenity and a commitment to reconciliation that would characterize the rest of his life, including his term as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Mandela’s face that almost no one had seen for nearly three decades turned out to be the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible, but powerful and sinewy, grace.

Havel spent time in prison too, for his leading role among dissidents opposing the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. A playwright who worked the nuances and ironies of drama to needle those in power, he never lost sight of the ambiguities — both the frustrations and the unexpected blessings —of political engagement.

In one of his plays, “Protest,” the character Vanek, a stand-in for Havel, tries to persuade the other character, Stanek, a writer who has compromised himself to curry favor with the government, that he isn’t judging him. Vanek is suspicious of claims to moral superiority, even — especially —his own. And this insight came to full expression in Havel’s 1990 New Year’s Address to the Czechoslovak people, as their newly elected president, when he said all were responsible for the nightmare from which the country had recently awakened.

In 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi delivered the keynote address to the U.N.’s Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing — by videotape. Had she left Myanmar, the military junta, which had her under house arrest, would not have allowed her to return home.

She shifted my moral geometry: “The last six years afforded me much time and food for thought. I came to the conclusion that the human race is not divided into two opposing camps of good and evil. It is made up of those who are capable of learning and those who are incapable of doing so.” She is talking about “learning as the process of absorbing those lessons of life that enable us to increase peace and happiness in our world.”

Mandela and Havel went from prison to the presidential palace. Suu Kyi, who intends to run for president of Myanmar in 2015, might join them in this topsy-turvy procession. All three of them, pragmatists with moral compasses in good working order, have demonstrated that human community is hard work — and worth it.

On this Christmas Eve, I can wish for my grandchildren no better gift than this: That when they tell their grandchildren about people who have inspired them, they will have tales of their own Mandelas and Havels and Suu Kyis. It has been done, so it’s possible.