It is not about what is happening in these times. It is about who we are and can be.
by Bob Schwartz
“Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five
Last week was the 75th anniversary of the Dresden firebombings in World War II. If you didn’t know that, chalk it up to a gap in learning and the media being preoccupied. On February 13 and 15, 1945, with Germany on its way to inevitable defeat, the Allies rained fire on the beautiful and culturally significant German city of Dresden, destroying much of it and killing no less than 25,000 people. To this day, the moral questions surrounding that attack are still debated.
When the author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died in 2007, here is what a writer in The Economist wrote:
Kurt Vonnegut Jr died yesterday at the age of 84. So it goes. The New York Times offers up a halfway decent obituary, but it is hard to capture the impact of such a man in a few thousand words, let alone a blog post. His best novels—”Cat’s Cradle”, “God Bless You, Mr Rosewater” and the epic, heartbreaking “Slaughterhouse-Five”—spoke to the deepest doubts and fears of a generation. But his books weren’t just beautifully written. They were hilarious, too.
A generation did embrace Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is listed as one of the 100 best novels of all time. The plot, as with most Vonnegut novels, is impossible to condense in short form. Significant is that Vonnegut himself witnessed Dresden as a prisoner of war, as does the main character Billy Pilgrim. In the novel, this has a profound effect on an already fragile Billy Pilgrim, who “comes unstuck in time” and is visited by aliens, learning new and different ways of viewing life and history.
Slaughterhouse-Five had obvious appeal as an anti-war novel, with young readers opposing a pointless and, in 1969, seemingly endless war. More than that, it offered those just starting out in life and history the possibility that there were other ways of being and doing. It turned out that other ways of being and doing are not so easy, but just like reading Kurt Vonnegut, it can be lots of fun. And occasionally helpful.
In America, and globally, what we are witnessing may have us feeling that we are coming unstuck in time. There are plenty of places and distractions to retreat into, which given the currents and demands of our lives, is perfectly understandable. But there remain opportunities for other ways of knowing and being, even if you don’t learn it from aliens. Young or old, be adventurous and bold.