TITLE: Waiting AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 25, 2005 1:37 PM DESC: A speech by Vaclav Havel caused me to think about the role of waiting in government, teaching, and software development. Not bad for a Saturday morning. ----- BODY: Vaclav Havel Last weekend, while my daughter was doing a final practice for her Suzuki Book I recital, I picked Vaclav Havel's The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice off the piano teacher's bookshelf for a little reading. This is a collection of speeches and short essays that Havel in the first half of the 1990s about his role as dissident, reformer, and president of the Czech Republic. He is, of course, famous as a poet, and his writing and speaking style have a poet's flare. I ended up spending most of my time with Havel's speech to the Academy of Humanities and Political Sciences in Paris on October 27, 1992. (I just noticed the date -- that's my birthday!) This speech discussed the different forms of waiting. Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot The first kind is sometimes characterized as waiting for Godot, after the absurdist play by Samuel Beckett. In this form, people wait for some sort of universal salvation. They have no real hope that life will get better, so they hold tightly to an irrational illusion of hope. Havel says that, for much of the 20th century, residents of the former communist world waited for Godot. At the opposite end of the waiting spectrum lies patience. Havel describes patience as waiting out of principle -- doing the right thing because it is right, not out of any expectation of immediate satisfaction. In this sense, patience is "waiting as a state of hope, not as an expression of hopelessness". Havel believes that the dissidents who ultimately toppled the communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain practiced this sort of waiting. When the curtain fell and the people of, say, Czechoslovakia took their first unsteady steps into the light of the western world, folks practicing the different forms of waiting encountered distinctive problems. Those who had been waiting for Godot felt adrift in a complex world unlike anything they had known or expected. They had to learn how to hope and to be free again. You might think that the patient dissidents would have adjusted better, but they faced an unexpected problem. They had hoped for and imagined a free world around them, but when they became free things didn't change fast enough. Havel relates his own struggles at being too idealistic and now impatient with the rate at which the Czech and Slovak republics assumed the mantel of democratic responsibility. Like many revolutionaries, he was criticized as out of his element in the new world, that he was most effective in the role of dissident but ineffective in the role of democratic leader. What struck me most about this essay came next. Havel recognized the problem: He had waited patiently as a dissident because he had no control over how anyone but himself behaved. Now that the huge impediment of an authoritarian regime had been surmounted, he found that he had become impatient for all the details of a democratic system to fall into place. He no longer waited well.
In short, I thought time belonged to me. ... 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 heed the commands of the technologist or the technocrat....
In his own transition from dissident to democratic leader, Havel learned again that he had to wait patiently as the world takes its "own meandering course". He asserts that the "postmodern politician" must learn waiting as patience -- a waiting founded on a deep respect for the world and its sense of time. Read:
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.
When the world changed, even in the way for which he had been working, Havel had to learn again how to be patient.
I think that 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 cannot fool history.
I think that 'waiting patiently as the world takes its own meandering course' translates into showing respect for people and the rate at which they can assimilate new ideas and change their behavior. Perhaps this speech affected me as it did because I am now thinking about leading my department. I certainly do not face a situation quite as extreme as Havel did when the communist regime fell in Czechoslovakia, yet I am in a situation where people do not trust the future as much as I'd like, and I need to find a way to help my department move in that direction. As Havel reminds me, I cannot move the department myself; I can only patiently plant the seeds of trust, water the ground well, and give the plants the time they need to grow. The value of this sort of waiting is not limited to the world of administration. Good instructors need to wait patiently, working with students to create the atmosphere in which they can grow and then giving them time and opportunity to do so. I also think that this sort of waiting holds great value in the world of software development. Agile methods are often characterized by folks in the traditional software engineering world as impatient in their desire to get to code sooner. But I think the opposite is true -- the agile methods are all about patience: waiting to write a piece of code until you really know what it should do, and waiting to design the whole program until you understand the world well enough to do it right. In this sense, traditional software engineering is the impatient approach, telling us to presumptuously design grand solutions to force the world to follow our senses of direction and time. The worlds in which most programs live are too complex for such hubris. I cannot resist closing with one last quote from the rich language of Havel himself:
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 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 tranquility, 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.
That sounds like a poet speaking, but it could be a programmer. And maybe the world would be a better place if all administrators thought this way. :-) -----