“Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” Thus will read the hypothetical epitaph on the hypothetical gravestone of the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim meanders through Vonnegut’s novel, almost a third-person observer of his own life. Throughout the vignette-laden journey, Vonnegut reveals an interesting commentary on life from Billy’s perspective.
I can’t say that I loved this book, but it intrigued me and kept me engaged. Also, I can’t strongly endorse this book because of a fair amount of profanity (which I dislike). Obviously each reader has their own tolerance level for this and mine is low.
What I can say about it is that I found something worthwhile in reading it. Good writing has multiple layers of meaning, different for each reader depending on their own experiences. This book said something meaningful to me and I would say it is good writing.
Perspectives from Slaughterhouse Five
I found several themes in Slaughterhouse Five, although I will only comment on one of them in this post. Vonnegut discusses the reality of conflict versus the romanticization of it through the randomness of death and the injustice of war. He approaches the subject of class definitions in America and the treatment of the poor. His overarching theme, subtly but thoroughly addressed, was mainstream society’s general dismissal of ideas and information that does not fit with its preconceived notions of “reality.”
Although it was more deeply hidden, I found a message that is important and helpful to me. This message was about facing trials and difficulties. I have written before about enduring difficulties, and I believe this message is important because challenges are universal and common to us all.
Billy Pilgrim has the unique ability to “become unstuck in time,” which, in the context of Vonnegut’s story, means he can see all points of his life at once. Billy is not constrained by sequential chronological existence. His death, his birth, and everything in between is continually visible to him. He regularly drifts in and out of his own life experience.
Once Billy gains this ability to see everything at once, he approaches life with an attitude that is rare to humans. No matter what he faces in life, it’s “alright with Billy.” He knows that it will work out as it should in the end. For example, he knows that he can marry his wife Valencia, even though she’s not perfect. Billy sees that they will have a happy life together. He endures the difficulties of prison life in Nazi Germany. Billy knows that is not where he dies.
This concept gives Billy a singularly even temperament as life appears so uncomplicated for him.
For you and me, it’s not that simple.
The Power of Perspective
If you could see your entire life from beginning to end, like Billy, trials would become much easier. Each unique moment of difficulty could be aloofly sorted and understood. You would understand how that particular thing fits into your overall development as a person. Each experience might demonstrate to you how it came about, how it would resolve, and what it would mean to you long-term.
Unfortunately we don’t have Billy Pilgrim’s incredible hyper-chronological capabilities. As mere mortals with normal brains, we rely on something other than actual knowledge of how our lives will play out to get through tough times. Perhaps that is all we need, though.
What we do have is perspective. Perspective is sufficient to carry us through our life, if we take the right point of view. The best perspective is driven by faith. This faith isn’t necessarily faith in God, although it could be. It is for me. But it is also faith in ourselves, our own resiliency, and our own ability to endure. It might also be faith in our friends, or family, and their supportive role in our life. Whatever it is, it can help us keep our head up and focused on the future.
Henry David Thoreau wrote:
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
To me that means you can’t look at an obstacle as a problem instead of as a way to grow and become stronger. If you do then you will forever by frustrated and wonder why life is so hard. But if you can manage to look past the “problem” then you will understand that the struggle will ultimately make you a better person. If you can do that, you can face life with confidence.
Perspective at the End
At the beginning of this post I put an illustration from Slaughterhouse Five that Vonnegut drew. The quote from it says “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” Billy Pilgrim thought he should put this on his tombstone as his epitaph.
What I think that quote doesn’t mean is that life will never be ugly or painful. I don’t think it means that we will avoid the bumps and the bruises. There is no reason to believe that our life is the only one that will be free of trouble. That is just not how it is.
But what I do think is that if we can keep our perspective, if we can see the long road ahead instead of the roadblock, then things are beautiful. I think that’s what Vonnegut means in that “everything was beautiful.” He’s referencing life at the end of it, after you have been through the difficulties and seen it from a different perspective.
Our life and our progression from who we were and are to who we will be become an incredible journey, not an episodic parade of frustrations. And by the way, things do hurt. Lots of them hurt and some of them hurt a lot. For the times when things are hard, it’s no simple task to just keep looking ahead either. In a previous post I discussed dealing with adversity.
But when we get to the end of life and when we get to look back, we will see something different than we remember living through. I believe the struggle, the pain, and the heartache will be covered up by the beauty of who we have become.
Comment below with your own thoughts.