In somewhat obscure and indirect reference to what I’m about to blog about, I’m going to type out a passage from Slaughterhouse-Five.
The Englishman got up in the stage, and he rapped on the arm of the throne with a swagger stick, called, “Lads, lads, lads- can I have your attention please?” And so on.
What the Englishman said about survival was this: “If you stop taking pride in your appearance, you will very soon die” He said that he had seen several men die in the following way: “They ceased to stand up straight, then ceased to wash or shave, then ceased to get out of bed, then ceased to talk, then died. There is this much to be said for it; it is evidently a very easy and painless way to go.” So it goes.
Although I’m not the most enthusiastic of fans for the book, this passage from Slaughterhouse-Five is one that stuck in my mind and hasn’t been dislodged since. I like to think that if I were a prisoner of war, like the protagonist Billy Pilgrim, I would be more like the English prisoners than the American ones. While the British prisoners sang manly songs, kept their prison camp clean and treated their imprisonment as a difficult but somewhat jolly camping trip, the American soldiers kicked over the latrine buckets, fought with each other, and made others as miserable as they were.
At this point you might wonder whether I have plans for being a POW. (prisoner of war) I’ll tell you a little secret- I’m already one. There are strict rules, my freedom is limited and death could approach me at any time.
True, my house is not patrolled by armed German soldiers, at least not most of the time, and the one dog here isn’t trained to hunt down and maul escapees, but sometimes, this place is full of unruly Americans, just like Billy Pilgrim’s camp. We fight and bicker, we mope and rage against the boundaries that hold us and the limitations imposed on our lives. We’re more like sulky, belligerent children than soldiers, if you ask me. We see our time here as a waste, an irritating, exasperating waste that makes us want to kick over the latrine buckets and punch the next non-com we see.
We waste a lot of our time and energy on being angry, and then we don’t have any left for the effort to live happily. We’re tired and bruised from fighting with each other and exhausted from the constant effort that constant rage requires. We can’t be happy because we’re just too busy being mad. And then we wonder whose fault it is. Stupid non-coms…
I’m not the only crazy one here, and whether or not you realize it, you’re a POW too. You’re trapped in this world, you’re limited by the circumstances around you and the only way out of this place is in a body bag. You can sulk around if you want to, you can complain about how you can’t do this and no one will let you do that. You can beat your head against the boundary walls until you’re bloody, but you know it’s not going to help. You could grow quietly miserable, you could waste your time languishing, staring out into space and pushing your food around your plate for no reason. You could grow tired and old and die long before your body does. Go on, resign yourself to misery. After all, you are in prison, even if it is the length and breadth of the entire earth, and you are stuck here, and no one will give you what you want. Go on, it’s not like you can do anything to make yourself happy. Oh no. Let us all lay down and die.
Or hey, here’s an idea- we could use the prison bunks for doing chin-ups. We could talk to the other inmates and get to know them. We could take life’s lemons (and barbwire, and latrine buckets) and turn them into lemon meringue pie and lemon pie squares and of course, lemonade. We can turn our limitations into challenges, turn our adversaries into worthy opponents instead, and look for ways around the brick walls instead of just banging our heads against them.
It’s true, no matter what you do you’ll still be a prisoner, and you’ll still be stuck here until Someone says otherwise, but you decide how to serve your time. That, Momma dearest, is why I am a happy camper. Now if you’ll excuse me, the other men are putting on Hamlet in the mess hall and I’m playing the lead.