Looking Back to a Kinder Future

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Vonnegut gave us more than an anti-war book; he gave us safe passage to our former selves

It didn’t work out well for Lot’s wife. As you might recall, she was warned not to look back at the Almighty’s wrath. “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human,” Kurt Vonnegut said.

And I love Vonnegut all the more for writing this line. A timeless vulnerability.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s best known book, both time and seeing (what we’re able to see) are tightly woven themes. Vonnegut finished Slaughterhouse-Five two decades after witnessing the horrors of World War II. Maybe that time enabled him to find humor in the absurdity of violence, chaos, power, and death. So it goes.

In my worn 1969 copy, flags and folded pages help me locate dozens of jewels. But it’s a smaller, less shiny line, early on in the book when he’s speaking directly to the reader, that intrigues me the most:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

Vonnegut does find a way to look back by creating Billy Pilgrim. Through Billy we can time travel to witness Billy’s past, present and future moments. In order for Vonnegut to tell his story (including the obliteration of Dresden), he needed a character who was both clueless and without choice. One that became unstuck in time, ping-ponging around from his death to his birth.

It’s a genius device, still, 50 years later. Slaughterhouse-Five is also the book I’ve found to be helpful, even therapeutic, in accepting the less-than-book-worthy stories I’ve told myself about my life.

Sometimes the war is within

Let me be clear: I’m not comparing a soldier’s war experiences with my own civilian, privileged life. I do suggest that Vonnegut’s approach to revisiting the horrors of what he experienced could be a useful way to make peace with the past.

If the looking back is painful or keeps you stuck, create a character you can empathize with.

Consider your younger self as a character in a chapter of your life’s book. I had an opportunity to try this on during my recent trip home to the Midwest. Before I left for the airport, I got in my head about letting my close high school friends know I was coming. I felt guilty for two years going by and I didn’t want to come across as ‘Hey! I’m on my way back! Drop everything!

So I tried to imagine a young girl (me) 40 years ago — as clueless as Billy Pilgrim. Not stupid, just ignorant about who she could become and all the possibilities her future might offer. As my compassion grew for her, so did my desire to see my friends.

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In fact, they were incredibly kind. Debbie came over to my parents’ house after she’d worked a full day and helped care for her friend’s aged father. Steve bought me a drink the day he was struggling with news of his sister’s cancer diagnosis and getting through the anniversary of his partner’s death. Teri treated me to breakfast, then later dropped off a gift bag with my favorite things. Signe rearranged her hospital schedule so that we could meet.

The day before we left my hometown, my husband looked at the sun setting on a 180-degree horizon. “I could see myself living here,” he said. And, while I knew he wasn’t asking to move, I didn’t roll my eyes or laugh at the idea. Instead, I remembered what Alain De Botton said,

“[It’s] Never too late to learn some embarrassingly basic, stupidly obvious things about oneself.”

Here they are:

When I moved away, I was not running from home; I was running from me.

Of course, I had a bunch of good reasons for venturing out into the world after high school. Like college and starting a career with a global company that liked to transfer employees, and going back to grad school. Each of my children were born in different states and life on the whole has been a great adventure.

Moving makes a great case for self-development, back in the day what we called “finding yourself.” But the truth is, I’m not lost. Yet, I don’t go home often. And when I do, I get anxious, feel a bit displaced.

What became apparent on this last trip home was this:

I desperately didn’t want to be who I thought I was or who I thought other people thought I was — all those years ago.

As sociologist Charles Cooley pointed out over a century ago, what I think about myself and what I believe other people think about me tend to be the same thing:

I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.

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I probably wasn’t that different than most of my peers. But it’s hard, even now, to see who I was beyond my neediness. My insecurities. My constant worries over being good/nice/popular/smart/pretty enough.

In fact, in seventh grade I ended up in the ER a few days after the most popular girl in our school screamed obscenities at me with her circle of sycophants gawking at my verbal beatdown. I learned I had ulcers.

Someone told me later that Miss Popular made up the accusations just to mess with me. She wasn’t to blame for the ulcers (I’m sure my worries were eating my stomach lining since elementary school), nor was she the worst thing that ever happened to me. I had a pretty good life then and now.

But my small character didn’t know how to handle conflict.

She didn’t know that conflict is not just okay, it’s inevitable and necessary for social and emotional growth. Instead of avoiding conflict (how I handled the seventh-grade incident and throughout high school) I needed to address it. I needed to save apologies for when I had wronged someone. I needed to stand up for myself, even if I stood alone.

I didn’t know what I needed, because approval was paramount.

Second-wave feminism was happening somewhere, but it was not happening in rural Illinois. Not only were other girls’ judgments of me potential powder kegs, I continued to harm myself by acting how I thought boys needed me to behave.

By conflating a location (home) with a fixed identity, I missed opportunities for character development.

Not only my own character development, but those of my friends and family members. I’d been short-sighted and unfair, somehow assuming that friends and especially my parents would be virtually the same people they were (and only as I saw them) decades ago. So I assumed they continued to see me as I was.

My own stuck perceptions were the problem.

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A steel helmet, a pipe, and a one-way train

If the former you as a sympathetic character doesn’t work, Vonnegut provides another theme: how little each of us is able to see.

Thanks to Billy’s abductors — four-dimensional beings who see all events in time simultaneously — we’re given this Earthling metaphor: Billy is strapped to a flat slab on a railway, his neck immobile, a long narrow pipe attached to one eye.

Every human perspective is all of a stationary pinprick. And the train we’re attached to is moving in a single direction.

“Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’”

But aren’t I different? What about that free will thing?

I’d like to believe that I can see more than a pinprick. But I think the metaphor works. I may have added detail to my tiny aperture when I moved from place to place, but I don’t have a wider perspective than anyone else.

It literally took going home after recently rereading Slaughterhouse-Five to see that I have been unnecessarily stuck in the past.

More than anything, I want to believe I have choice. To change, to love, to learn — even if it means finding out more embarrassingly stupid things about myself.

But those rascally abductors, the Tralfamadores, tell Billy, “Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Whether free will exists doesn’t really matter.

I found a way to get unstuck. I’m giving the credit to Mr. Vonnegut.

There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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