I started reading The Last Interview compiled by Tom McCartan. It’s a collection of interviews with Kurt Vonnegut. He’s absolutely one of my favorite writers. I had my first experience with him as a senior in high school when, as co-president of the school’s book club, we chose his first book Player Piano to read for our first book of the year. I can honestly say that I remember next to nothing from the book, other than it started in Schenectady, New… York? And at some point the story moved to an island? I remember enjoying the book but not finding it particularly mind blowing. Then during my first year of college, I started hanging out with a bunch of English majors (which I never could quite explain, seeing as how I was a biology major and spent most of my days with other biology majors). My soon-to-be best friend in the whole wide world told me he thought I’d enjoy reading some Vonnegut and sent me the short story “Harrison Bergeron”, which I fell in love with.
I went on to immediately buy three of his books: Sirens of Titan, Slaughter-house Five, and Cat’s Cradle. At the expense of getting good grades, I read the first two of those three almost immediately. Of the two, Sirens of Titan had a larger impact on me. There was a line near the end along the lines of “The purpose of life is to love whoever is around to be loved.” To my 18 year old mind, this was a profound statement and one I adopted as my life-philosophy almost immediately. Even today, not really much later, I still can see this line echoing in most of my daily living. It was Cat’s Cradle though that ended up being the most influential.
For some reason, I didn’t end up reading Cat’s Cradle till over a year later. The story, I’d argue is the epitome of his writing. It’s got great humor cut with a ubiquitous touch of sadness. I’d like to think that it was the book that also sent me off towards becoming a full-fledged atheist. I almost immediately became a subscriber to his satirical religion “Bokononism”. In fact, its still my “Religion” on Facebook. With a little more digging through parts of my facebook I never look at anymore, quotes from it are spread around all over.
After Cat’s Cradle, I was hooked and couldn’t be stopped. I now own and have read a majority of his books and short stories. His writing speaks to me in a way no one else so far has. Did I mention we’re both secular humanists? He wrote his feelings on his sleeve, to confuse a metaphor. His satire gave a window into the mind of man who seemed sadly optimistic without having any reason to be, other than his belief in the deep down potential for good in people. I say sadly optimistic, because he seemed to feel there was a lot of sadness in the world, as evidenced by this quote from The Last Interview:
“The most horrible hypocrisy or the most terrifying hypocrisy or the most tragic hypocrisy at the center of life, I think, which no one dares mention, is that human beings don’t like life. Bertrand Russel skirted that, and many psychoanalysts have too in talking about people lusting for death. But I think at least half the people alive, and maybe nine-tenths of them, really do not like this ordeal at all. They pretend to like it some, to smile at strangers, and to get up each morning in order to survive, in order to somehow get through it. But life is, for most people, a very terrible ordeal. They would just as soon end it at any time… Most people don’t want to be alive. They’re too embarrassed, they’re disgraced, they’re frightened.” pg. 71
You see this theme echoed throughout a lot of his writing. Life is tough and all anyone is looking for are a few people or activities or items that make it a little easier. More and more I’m starting to agree with him. We like to pretend that we’ve moved beyond the “red in tooth and claw” existence of Homo sapiens before civilization. But instead of all us facing the threat of being eaten by a lion or starving to death, most of us face much different demons (not to trivialize the struggles of people who actually do risk death via lion or starvation, but in first world countries most people struggle a bit differently). We fight psychological threats, often becoming our own worst enemies by drowning in our fears, our work, our stress, and our comparisons to other people.
In an era where we’re endlessly connected by technology, it has really never been easier to feel isolated (he writes sitting alone in his living room over 100 miles from anyone he really cares about having just skyped with his best friend over 300 miles away). I hear what I just said more often than I’d like to, to the point it’s almost becoming cliche, but I won’t deny there is some truth to it. It’s hard work reaching out to other people, trying to form connections, and making honest, deep connections. It’s a risk – you risk your attempts being unreciprocated. When I’m feeling particularly down and alone though I have to remind myself of one of my other favorite Vonnegut quotes: “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.” Timequake (I’ll be honest I don’t know what page).
Even if I still don’t have any more friends or personal connections after reading that, I still feel better. I’m not alone, no matter how alone I feel. There are other people out there with thoughts and experiences similar to mine. That alone brings me out of my melancholy, which at times can be crippling enough to leave me curled up on the couch watching Netflix ad nauseum. But when I think about all the other people out there like me, I feel a little less bad. I’m able to focus on making life what I want it to be – I read more, I get outdoors more, I write more, I bake more. I take more time to be who I want to be. And I really like that.