The wave of euphoria across the globe triggered by the election of Barack Obama as the next American president set me thinking on what constitutes meaning in our lives. One man with a lot to say on the subject is Václav Havel—playwright, political dissident, president, and a hero of our time.
In his book Living in Truth, Havel described the worth of a life of struggle against an oppressive regime. One passage that resonates with us as scientists reads: "The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can."
You get the sense from Havel's writings that, although certainly not preferable to our current comfortable circumstances, life is more vivid and meaningful when lived against a domineering counterpoint that is actively preventing you from pursuing your ideals. I imagine that few readers of The Scientist are put in the position where they have to demonstrate bravery for the cause. Perhaps those standing up for evolution in the face of overwhelming local opposition and advocates for animal research in Europe know the feeling.
Today we don't even have a good example of an alternative political ideology. Anyone from a Western country who is under the age of 40 has no appreciation of the great struggle between capitalism and communism that Havel was caught up in. In my youth, we at least had the abstract notion of communism as favoring equality and justice; it served as a parameter (an imaginary one as it turned out) against which to measure our system of liberty.
So where today can we—especially younger generations—find larger meaning in our lives, without being in the midst of a great ideological struggle? A pursuit of science may be one way. For Havel, living in truth "has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and eternal"; science offers a physical rather than metaphysical anchoring in reality. Havel's domains are drama and politics. He wrote that the literary arts try "to deal with [the] fundamental amorphousness of life, to uncover something like the structure of Being, to display in vivid terms its internal weave, its hidden structure, and its real articulation." So too, does biology. Except that biology provides an iron-clad set of rules to work within, rather than to react against.
Part of Havel's charm is that he doesn't consider himself to be an outstanding artist: "I do not belong to that fortunate class of authors who write constantly, quickly, easily, and always well, whose imaginations never tire and who—unhampered by doubts or inhibitions—are by nature open to the world." How many of you experience the same feelings about your research? I know how much I struggle with these editorials!
Long before the Obama-fever that triggered this editorial, Havel had also
encapsulated the possibilities of politics. He acknowledged that it may "appear to
be hopelessly boring, a gray, dull administrative grind," and a "strange,
never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately
recognizable outcomes." To counteract this, Daniel J.
With the current new dawn here in the United States, we see what Havel means about politics. And as scientists we are in a strong position to adopt his attitude and to live meaningful lives.