Sunday, December 14, 2008

Lost on Earth, Found on Titan -- The Meaning of Life According to Kurt

I know the meaning of life. It took me close to 20 years, but I found it.

You might be asking yourself, “How did she do it? She’s far too young to have figured out the greatest mystery of them all.” But I did, and now you can too.

Whoever came up the metaphor was a genius. The metaphor is the most important literary device. It has a larger role in society than people think. It’s not just a lesson in elementary school English class – it’s the only way to find answers to questions that aren’t a simple “yes” or “no.”

I know I’m not alone in saying that I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out what any or all of life means. It’s one of those questions everyone wants to know – like the actual definitions of “beauty”, “truth”, and “love” or “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”

It’s human nature to ask questions we don’t know the answers to. We like to pretend we’re the Sherlock Homes of day-to-day life. We like to think we can find the answers. It’s reassuring. It warms our hearts. It makes us feel good – just like the smell of a hot cup of cocoa on a bitter snowy night, finding answers to questions we don’t fulfills us in ways we can’t completely explain. It’s a gut reaction, a “you-know-it-when-you-feel-it” kind of experience.

I remember the first time I felt that way. I was 14 and convinced myself I was on the verge of discovering the answer to “one of life’s biggest questions.” My eighth grade English class was assigned our final book of our elementary school career – “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger.

“Casual profanity and a rebel without a cause in the middle of his years as an angsty prep school teenager?” It was a match made in heaven.

Salinger read my mind. I never thought anyone could capture how I felt in writing – until then. That put me at east. I felt in charge and somehow obligated to question authority.

Five years later, during the summer following my freshman year of college, I decided to branch out and try my luck by reading a new author. I scanned the Barnes & Noble rack for at least a half hour until coming across a row of books by Kurt Vonnegut. I skimmed plot descriptions, searching for a story that struck my fancy and ended up snatching a copy of the Vonnegut-fan favorite “Cat’s Cradle”.

I didn’t leave the store until I finished “Cat’s Cradle.” I couldn’t put it down. So I took that as a sign – I had to buy another Vonnegut novel.

I decided my second purchase would have to appeal to my self-deprecating side. I didn’t want to be a tragic, misunderstood, brooding female equivalent to “Holden Caulfield” anymore. I wanted a new perspective. It turns out “The Sirens of Titan” had the answer I didn't even know I was looking for.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died in 2007 a few days before the shootings at Virginia Tech. Despite the horrific events experienced in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, I still think the day Vonnegut passed away was a giant loss for America and was overshadowed.

The Pall Mall chain smoking, science-fiction satirist who survived the bombing of Dresden and warmed readers hearts with quick-wit, clever one-liners, and honesty was smart enough to write everything he knew down.

Metaphors are the bullets Vonnegut aims at the human mind with the hope that people will find the pearls of wisdom he’s put inside. His metaphors are gems, each sparkling independent of one another, introducing the trials and tribulations of life as if it were a lotus emerging from its murky waters showcasing its growth into something beautiful. His novels are the means by which he distributes these ideas.

Literary scholars and academics have taken stabs at finding the deeper thematic meanings in Vonnegut’s prose. His stories, science fiction in theme but always about people’s treatment of one another and themselves, are as conversational (if not more so) than Salinger but teach simple lessons that characters learn while living complicated, drama-filled lives.

His novels are equivalent to sticking California pop culture heiresses Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in rural family’s homes for the 2003 Fox reality show “The Simple Life” – judging the way the acted they might as well have been on another planet, but there was always some sort of moral to the end. Vonnegut’s main characters do the same. They leave their comfort zone after experiencing some form of trauma or drama, hoping to find answers elsewhere – whether that’s another planet or another state.

Vonnegut labeled himself with various titles throughout his life whether it was atheist, agnostic, or a free thinker. His interest in Humanism as a way to live life eventually landed him the role of honorary president of the American Humanist Association in 1992, a role he held until his death in 2007.

In a letter to AHA members, Vonnegut said, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”

With that in mind – I entrust you with following theory: Kurt Vonnegut is the only man to ever live who not only knew the meaning of life, but also wrote it down with the confidence that people would read it and apply it to their lives. He did this in his second published novel “The Sirens of Titan.”

There has never been such a simple and logical answer to such a complex question. What is the meaning of life? Vonnegut walks you through the motions of how to find the meaning of life for the duration of his 1959 novel, exchanging his words of wisdom with the reader near the story’s end:

"A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."

It’s that simple.

It sounds disheartening at first, but this is a sentence worth reading between the lines to understand. Forget about who or what might be controlling the universe. That is irrelevant and unimportant concerning the meaning of life.

The meaning of human life is to love whoever is around to be loved.

The Bible teaches morals. It says to honor thy father and thy mother, thy sister and thy brother. It also says to covet thy neighbor. Since all people were made in the image of God, there’s no reason to not love everyone – whether they’re blood related or not. Vonnegut says people are people, so love them all the same just as long as they're around to be loved. It’s the same as the Bible only Vonnegut’s version is simplified.

People get caught up with life. When that happens, they search for answers in god, in science, and sometimes in illegal and illicit ways. But Kurt Vonnegut attempts to dispel human distraction by reminding people to take the time to love others. According to him, that’s all we’re required to do.

Care about people. Cry when someone’s sad. Yell when someone’s angry. Hug when someone needs it most. Don’t worry about how we got here or where we’re going. That’s not our problem to solve.

The problem with people is that they don’t know how to live in the present. They keep asking “what if” questions and wasting the time that should be spent on loving and living.

This is a lot to think about. After all, I’m not the first person to spend years trying to figure out the meaning of life. Don’t be discouraged though. This theory doesn’t mean there aren’t other possible answers. Keep searching for your own. Never stop.

Vonnegut opened "The Sirens of Titan" by telling readers "Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself. But mankind wasn't always so lucky."

Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but know that the answer's there if you want. So it goes.

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