I was introduced to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut when I was in my twenties by one of my closest friends. I’m not sure why his writing spoke to me so clearly at that time. Possibly because he dealt with so many issues that I thought were my problems exclusively: what the heck are we here for? Is feeling this lonely normal? How do you manoeuvre your way through life successfully?
I do remember reading his collection of essays called Palm Sunday and having a minor revelation—everybody feels lonely from time to time and one of the tasks of an adult is to learn to cope with it. For years, I re-read that book for that same nugget of comfort. I was not alone in my aloneness and I felt better able to deal with it as a result.
Many people object to Vonnegut on the basis of his language and general lack of decency. In this day and age, when you’re like to hear the f-bomb wherever you go, I would think that the objections to his vocabulary are on the decline. And I always felt that he was pointing out the hypocrisy of “decent people” who were willing to overlook the needy, the lonely and others less fortunate while busy congratulating themselves on what decent human beings they were. Because these people never swore they somehow thought that this made them more worthy than the rest of us. To me, his writings convey the need for all of us to be more thoughtful and kind to everyone we encounter, not for religious reasons, but because of our shared humanity. We are all in this together, as Red Green would say. It’s something we still need to learn—just ask the folks who go to the homeless shelters in your community.
The Sirens of Titan is another iteration of these ideas. What are we here for? Apparently to provide a spare part for a spaceship from Tralfamadore for the alien robot Salo. Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China are both messages to him from the planet of Tralfamadore, assuring him that he is not forgotten. To me, this was a reminder that perhaps we shouldn’t be too serious in our pursuit of meaning. We are all just guessing about life’s purpose and with that realization, we should forbear shoving our guess down everybody else’s throats. Their guesses are as good as ours.
In these days of turmoil, when strong religious opinions are causing wars and long-lasting conflicts (that no one is willing to call war), it’s worth questioning our purposes for being involved. I’ve also been reading Getting it Done: the art of stress free productivity by David Allen. I’ve appreciated his clarity on how to keep a project from bogging down: 1) know the purpose of the project (why are you doing it?) and 2) know where you want to end up (what end product will make everyone happy?). I think that today’s governments tend to get involved in a reactive way rather than a proactive way—they may have a hazy sense of purpose and after they’re involved, they suddenly realize that they’re not sure how to declare a success. What constitutes success in these missions? When neither purpose nor successful outcome is clear, the project/armed conflict is doomed from the beginning.
On the plus side, it does seem like the Arab Spring that took place this year has made Western democracies re-examine their foreign policies and more carefully consider which leaders they consider allies. Will we continue to support stable governments run by despotic murderers just because stability is more comfortable than instability? Or will we support democratic movements, even when they may elect people that we don’t like? (For instance, Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt).
When it comes right down to it, we are all human and all citizens of the same planet. A striking number of astronauts have returned from space with the conviction that if everyone could see the earth from space, that human society would change. They are struck by the smallness of our planet in the vastness of space and the lack of boundary lines which we artificially impose on maps. They return to earth feeling much more like citizens of Earth than citizens of a particular country. I think this “Human Club” is what Vonnegut is trying to initiate the reader into through his writing. We aren’t just from Calgary, Alberta or from Indianapolis, Indiana—we are planetary citizens and we should all stick together.