Peter Kowalke

Peter Kowalke

Somewhere Between Saint and Sinner

By on July 5, 2023

Recently I went deep on Václav Havel, the thinker and playwright who improbably liberated Czechoslovakia from communist rule and became the country’s first president. I approached the story of Havel because I knew nothing about Czechoslovakia. I stayed because he is an inspiration for me and my life.

Václav was a flawed and understated man. But he did one thing consistently that I also have always wanted to do: he structured his life around deep moral values and stayed true to them.

He stayed true to his values even when it took him to prison for four years.

In this way, Václav is an inspiration and a model for me much as Mohandas Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda have always been core rolemodels in my life.

The Story of Havel

Václav was an unexceptional man except for this moral clarity in thought and action. This is why I can relate to him and draw strength from his life.

He grew up with an idyllic but somewhat isolated childhood as the son of well-off parents who navigated the chaos of World War II and Russia’s takeover of Czechoslovakia after the war. He was thoughtful and a writer, and fell in with the dissident artists of newly communist Czechoslovakia. This led him to become a playwright at a time when such activities were considered subversive.

It wasn’t that Václav actually was subversive. He was just a thinker who wanted to make his art honestly. But communist society at the time made authenticity and honesty subversive.

I can relate to all of this as a former semi-isolated and thoughtful youth who also is a little subversive, but only because I want to live honestly and with authenticity. Just like Václav, there actually is little about me that is exceptional except for this commitment to thoughtfulness and personal authenticity.

Through this commitment to being authentic and honest, Václav slowly became a leading dissident in communist Czechoslovakia. And when he refused to stop being openly authentic, the communists harassed him and then threw him in jail for four years basically. Václav refused to stop being true to himself and his values even at a high personal cost.

This utter commitment to his values mixed with public notoriety as a playright then led Václav Havel to fall into the role of guiding light during the bloodless Velvet Revolution when Czechs fought against communism. Václav became president of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia in 1989, laid the foundation for the country’s renewal, and then went on to guide the Czech Republic for 10 years as president when the country amicably split with neighboring Slovakia (hence the change from “Czechoslovakia” to Czech Republic and Slovakia).

What makes Václav an inspiration for me and others is that even when he became president, he stayed true to his moral values. He was a paragon of moral strength and authenticity in a job where co-opted values typically are the norm. He led with values, not with expedients or “ends justify the means” thinking.

Approaching Sainthood

I don’t think Václav would call himself a saint, or say he was striving to be a saint. But that was his role and his journey. He never reached what we would call sainthood, but the story of his life shows glimpses of a normal man who was moving toward sainthood by not compromising on what he understood to be right. And doing so in a humble, loving way.

This is why Václav Havel is a model for me, and why I will put his picture up on my wall when I return to my Bangkok apartment.

The goal of life as I understand it is to purify ourselves so we can understand and live truthfully in every moment. Václav more or less did this. He wouldn’t say that his goal in life was being a saint, which is what I claim as my own goal. But his actions betrayed that very goal, and he is a model because he did it without being an exceptional man. Any of us could do what Václav did, I think. The only trick is that we don’t do it.

I do a pretty good job of being authentic and having my values guide my life. But I can do better. So Václav Havel is an inspiration for me. The way he structured his life around what he believed in and remained true to himself is an inspiration.

I want to be like Václav. He lived true.

Peter is a relationship coach, writer/producer, and R&D monastic. He splits his time between San Francisco and Asia. Read more about Peter.