A Brief Consideration of the Phenomenon of Waiting

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by Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson

From an address delivered to the Academy of Humanities and Political Sciences. Paris, October 27, 1992.

The honor you have bestowed upon me by electing me to the famous French Academy of Humanities and Political Sciences is a great source of encouragement to me in the present and of commitment for the future. If I am to be one of you until the end of my days, I must be worthy of it until the end of my days. I promise you I will try.

It is my pleasant duty—in the spirit of the wonderful tradition of this academy— to recall with deep respect my predecessor, the Italian economist Giuseppe Ugo Papi, whose life’s work was concerned, among other things, with creating and developing international structures for economic cooperation, and who was important far beyond the borders of his native country.

I come to you from a country that waited many long years for its freedom. Allow me to use this opportunity for a brief consideration of the phenomenon of waiting.

 

There Are Different Ways of waiting. At one end of the great spectrum there is waiting for Godot, who embodies universal salvation. For many of us who lived in the communist world, waiting was something very close to this extreme position. Surrounded, bound, and as it were internally colonized by the totalitarian system, people lost the sense that there was a way out. They lost the will to do anything; they lost the feeling that there was anything they could do. They simply lost hope. But they did not and indeed could not lose the need for hope, because without hope a meaningful life is impossible. So they waited for Godot. Because they did not carry hope within them, they expected it to arrive as some kind of salvation from the outside. But Godot—at least as one who is expected— will not come, because he simply doesn’t exist. He only represents hope. He is not hope itself, but an illusion. He is the product of our own helplessness, a patch over a hole in the spirit. The patch itself is full of holes. It is the hope of people without hope.

On the other end of the spectrum there is waiting of another kind: that is, patience. For us this waiting was based on the knowledge that it made sense on principle to resist by speaking the truth simply because it was the right thing to do, without speculating whether it would lead somewhere tomorrow, or the day after, or ever. This kind of waiting grew out of the faith that repeating this defiant truth made sense in itself, regardless of whether it was ever appreciated, or victorious, or repressed for the hundredth time. At the very least, it meant that someone was not supporting the government of lies. It also, of course, grew out of the faith—but this is of secondary importance—that a seed once sown would one day take root and send forth a shoot. No one knew when. But it would happen someday, perhaps for future generations.

This stance—for simplicity’s sake, let us call it the dissident stance—assumed and cultivated patience. It taught us how to wait. It taught us waiting as patience, waiting as a state of hope, not as an expression of hopelessness. Whereas waiting for Godot is a meaningless form of self-deception and therefore a waste of time, this second type of waiting does have meaning; it is not a sweet lie but a bitter truth, and time spent in this kind of waiting is not wasted. To wait until good seeds sprout is not the same as waiting for Godot. Waiting for Godot means waiting for lilies we have never planted to grow.

I should make it clear that citizens of the communist world could not be divided into dissidents and those who merely waited for Godot. To a certain extent, all of us waited for Godot at times, and at other times were dissidents. It’s just that some of us might have been more the former, and others more the latter. Nevertheless, this experience can be simplified to the recognition that there are different kinds of waiting.

Obviously, I am thinking about this not because I feel a strong nostalgia for the past. I am trying to determine what this experience means for the present and for the future.

 

Allow Me To Be Personal for a moment. Although I am trained in the dissident type of patience based on the awareness that waiting has a meaning, nevertheless, in the three years since our peaceful, antitotalitarian revolution I have been seized again and again by a desperate impatience. I have agonized over how slowly things were changing. My country still didn’t have a new, democratic constitution; Czechs and Slovaks could not agree on whether they wished to live in one country or in two; we were not moving swiftly enough toward the Western democratic world and its structures; we were having trouble coming to terms with our own past; we were too slow to get rid of the legacy of the old regime and the moral poverty it left behind.

It was as though I had forgotten how to wait, to wait in the way that has meaning.

I longed desperately for at least some of these problems to be resolved so that I could cross them off the list and put them out of the way. I longed for some visible, tangible, indisputable evidence that something was finished, over and done with. I found it difficult to accept that politics, like history itself, is a never-ending process, in which nothing is ever definitively over.

Photo by Spyros Papaspyropoulos

Photo by Spyros Papaspyropoulos

It was as though I had forgotten how to wait, to wait in the way that has meaning.

And only now, when I have had a little time to step back and think about all this, am I beginning to understand that, in my impatience, I succumbed to precisely the thing I had criticized: the destructive impatience of contemporary technocratic civilization. This grows out of a vain belief in the primacy of reason and it assumes erroneously that the world is nothing but a crossword puzzle to be solved, that there is only one correct way—the so-called objective way—to solve it, and that it is entirely up to me whether I succeed or not. Without even being aware of it, I, too, submitted to the perverted belief that I was the master of reality, that the only task was to improve reality according to some existing recipe, that it was entirely up to me when I did it, and thus that there was no reason not to do it right away.

In short, I thought time belonged to me.

It was, of course, a big mistake.

 

The World, Being, And History have their own time. We can, of course, enter that time in a creative way, but none of us has it entirely in his hands. The world and Being do not heed the commands of the technologist or the technocrat, and they do not exist to do his bidding. They resist his sense of time, just as they resist a broad interpretation of their sense of time. And just as they have their own secrets and their own mystery, which is constantly catching modern enlightenment rationality off guard, they also take their own, meandering course. If we give in to the desire to eradicate this unfathomable meandering by erecting some monstrous dam, we risk a great deal, from the loss of groundwater to catastrophic changes in the biosphere.

If I consider my own political impatience, I realize with new urgency that a politician of the present and the future— allow me to use the expression “post-modern politician”—must learn, in the deepest and best sense of the word, the importance of waiting. I don’t mean waiting for Godot; his waiting must be the expression of respect for the inner dynamics and tempo of Being, for the nature of things, for their integrity and their independent dynamics, which resist coercive manipulation. He must have the will to open events to the possibility of manifesting themselves as they really are, in their essence. His actions cannot derive from impersonal analysis; they must come out of a personal point of view, which cannot be based on a sense of superiority but must spring from humility.

 

The World Cannot Be Brought under total control because it is not a machine. Nor can it be rebuilt from the ground up merely on the basis of a technological idea. Utopians who believe this sow even greater suffering than what they seek to alleviate. If reason is disengaged from the unique human spirit and becomes the main guide to political action, it can only lead to the use of force, to violence. The world will resist an order forced upon it by a brain that has forgotten that it is itself merely a modest aspect of the world’s infinitely rich morphology. And the more systematically and impatiently the world is crammed into rational categories, the more explosions of irrationality there will be to astonish us.

Yes, even I—the sarcastic critic of all those who vainly attempt to explain the world—had to remind myself that the world cannot just be explained, it must be grasped and understood as well. It is not enough to impose one’s own words on it; one must also listen to the polyphony of often contradictory messages the world sends out and try to penetrate their meaning. It is not enough to describe, in scientific terms, the mechanics of things and events; their spirit must be personally perceived and experienced. We cannot merely follow the timetable we have set for our influence on the world; we must also honor and respect the infinitely more complex timetable the world has set for itself. That timetable is the sum of the thousands of independent timetables of an infinite number of natural, historical, and human actions.

You cannot wait for Godot.

Godot will not come, because he does not exist.

In fact, you can’t even fabricate Godot. A typical example of a fabricated Godot—that is, a Godot that actually shows up and is therefore a false Godot—is communism. It was supposed to save us, but it ended up only destroying us.

There was, in fact, something communistic in my impatience to renew democracy. Or, in more general terms, something of a rationally enlightened nature. I wanted to nudge history forward in the way a child would when wishing to make a flower grow more quickly: by tugging at it.

I think the art of waiting is something that has to be learned. We must patiently plant the seeds and water the ground well, and give the plants exactly the amount of time they need to mature.

Just as we cannot fool a plant, we can- not fool history. But we must water history as well, patiently and every day. We must water it not just with understanding, not just with humility, but with love.

If politicians and citizens learn to wait in the best sense of the word—that is, as a way of respecting the inner order of things we are never allowed to see into fully—if they understand that everything in the world has its own time and that, in addition to what they desire from the world and history, what the world and history themselves aspire to is also important, then humanity will not necessarily turn out as badly as it sometimes seems it might.

 

I Come From A Country That is full of impatient people. Perhaps they are impatient because they have waited for Godot for so long that they think Godot has finally come. This is an error as profound as the one on which their waiting was based. Godot did not come. And that is just as well, because any Godot that did come would be merely the imaginary Godot, the communist Godot. What came to fruition had to come to fruition. Perhaps it would have come to fruition sooner had we watered it better. But now we have a single task. We have to take this harvest, extract from it the seeds, sow them again, and patiently water them.

If we are certain that the planting was good and that we are watering regularly, we have no reason to be impatient. It is enough to realize that our waiting has a meaning.

Waiting that has meaning because it grows out of hope and not hopelessness, from faith and not despair, from humility toward the time of the world and not out of fear of its sublime tranquillity, is accompanied not by boredom but by suspense. This kind of waiting is more than just waiting.

It is life. Life as the joyous involvement in the miracle of Being.


Václav Havel (1936 – 2011) was a Czech poet, playwright, dissident and politician. In 1993 he became the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic, a position he held for a decade.

From The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice. Copyright © 1997 by Václav Havel and Paul Wilson. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

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