Per my father’s recommendation, I recently read Slaughterhouse-Five, a classic and exceptional novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It follows the fictional Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier in WWII that is captured by Germans and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Dresden. The novels describes the tragic bombing of Dresden, a beautiful city that gets completely demolished, yet the novel is not purely historical.
At some point in his life, Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” in time, which adds a very unique and surreal element to the story. He claims to have been captured by aliens, Tralfamadorians, who explain to him the true nature of time: that everything is predetermined and unchangeable. (They can see the entire past and future all at once.)
They put him on display at a Tralfamadorian zoo, and eventually return him to earth. Throughout the entire book, we (following Billy) jump sporadically to different times in his life. Billy attributes this time-traveling ability to his newfound understanding that our lives are already completely written. The author is deliberately ambiguous as to whether all this is real, or if Billy is merely delusional after a traumatizing experience in the war.
Either way, I thought the Tralfamadorians had some interesting things to say about time and destiny. There’s a great passage when Billy is in the Tralfamadorian zoo and somebody in the zoo crowd asks him what the most valuable thing he had learned on Tralfamadore was so far.Billy says “How the inhabitants of a whole planet can live in peace. As you know, I am from a planet that has been engaged in senseless slaughter since the beginning of time… If other planets aren’t now in danger from Earth, they soon will be. So tell me the secret so I can take it back to Earth and save us all: How can a planet live at peace?”
Billy thinks he just spoke “soaringly,” but the Tralfamadorians regard this as a stupid question, since they already know how the universe ends “and Earth has nothing to do with it, except that it gets wiped out, too.” Billy asks how it ends, and they plainly state, “We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.”
Then comes the interesting part:
“If you know this,” said Billy, “isn’t there some way you can
prevent it? Can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button?”
“He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him
and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
I don’t really believe that everything is predetermined. But sometimes it’s nice to think that way. What a relief! What a burden off our backs to suddenly realize that everything is already set, and now we can just sit back and enjoy the ride. In the novel, Billy is certainly comforted by the idea that all the horrors he endured simply had to happen that way, and could not have gone differently.
Yet as the website Shmoop explains, that freedom and comfort comes at a cost. He surrenders his free will- his desire and ability to change and improve things: “He doesn’t prevent his son from going to war, he doesn’t attempt to remind people of the bombing of Dresden – nothing.”
I think the struggle to find a balance between acceptance and ambition is one of the most complex and important struggles that we as human beings face. So much of our unhappiness and conflict comes from not being able to accept things as they are. Western materialism is an important example.
We tend to think “If I only had a new car, a bigger house, a better phone…. then I would be happy.” We link our happiness to things; objects, achievements. But this “if..then” philosophy is an exercise in futility, because there will always be something newer and bigger and better, and so by not accepting what we have, we are unnecessarily preventing ourselves from being happy.
If you decide that what you have is what you want, then hey! Look at that! You have everything you want! Wasn’t that easy?
If everyone was perfectly content with what they have, would there be war? Would there crime? If we accepted everything that happens as perfect and unchangeable, simply saying “the moment is structured that way,” would there ever be sadness? Anger? Greed? Regret?
In the time I’ve spent in South America, I’ve found that many people there tend to lean toward this end of the spectrum. They are laid back and easygoing. I volunteered for 6 weeks in a community in the Paraguayan countryside, where I was thrilled by a standard response to the question “Que tal?” (How are things?”). People would reply “Tranquilopa,” a combination of the spanish “tranquilo” (calm, tranquil) and the indigenous guaraní, “opa” (everything, complete.)
Though they were poor and lived comparatively simple lives, the people seemed content to have and do very little. They would often sit for long periods of time, enjoying the company of friends and family, passing around a cup of tereré. Sometimes I would sit quietly with my host dad, just thinking and observing the scenery.
Coming from such a fast-paced, competitive, and demanding culture, it was a little unsettling at first to spend so much time simply sitting, but I soon had moments of profound appreciation for this way of life. Relax. Breathe. Take in the scenery. Enjoy the people you’re with. What else could you possibly need?
Towards the end of the trip, however, I began to grow a little restless once more. At some point, a beautifully accepting disposition begins to feel like a waste of potential. My ambitious American side, which has been exposed to the idea ‘you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it,’ since Kindergarten began to kick in, and I thought, Don’t you guys want to pursue something bigger?
For while there is power in acceptance, there is also merit to ambition. Not accepting things as they are is what drives progress and innovation. Why should we have to be cold, when we could be warm? Why should we have to die painfully of horrible diseases, when they could be cured? Why should we have to walk everywhere, when there could be speedier alternatives? Rejecting the status quo and seeking out something better is how mankind came to domesticate crops, discover the earth was round, invent the airplane, and build the computer. Almost all the great achievements of humanity are direct results of dissatisfaction. But perhaps, so are our biggest mistakes…
Life is short and everyone wants to live it to the fullest- as happily as possible. So the question is: is happiness best achieved through acceptance or through improvement? At what point should we strive for something better, and at what point should we simply accept things as they are? As with all things in life, I think the best solution is a balance. Everything in moderation. I suppose the exact ratio would be unique for everyone, but I think it’s important to remember that both are always viable options.
Many of us could probably benefit from letting go a little more often. When things don’t go our way and we find ourselves angry, frustrated, upset, or saddened, perhaps it would be useful to think: You know what? It’s okay. It’s perfect. That’s the way it had to happen. That’s the way this moment was structured. Perhaps then we can let go, and put our energy into something more productive.
On the other hand, there are certainly many of us that could be happier if we took more control over our lives and our world. Instead of just feeling sad or angry about something, confront it head on. Fix it. Do it. Make it happen. Get it done. In some circumstances, this is the best way to deal with the situations that befall us.
The right balance between these two approaches is infinitely difficult to determine, but important to contemplate. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, was certainly aware of this struggle, and articulates it perfectly in a short poem that appears twice in the book:
GOD GRANT ME
THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT
THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE,
TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN,
AND WISDOM ALWAYS
TO TELL THE