I have been a literary fan girl of Kurt Vonnegut’s since the first time I read Slaughterhouse-Five. When I read his essay “There Shall Be Wailing in All Streets,” I was profoundly moved by his ability to understand the larger picture (World War II) and his desire to defend the defenseless who get caught in the crossfire (those who died in the bombing of Dresden during WWII). Vonnegut is a war veteran who believes that WWII was worth fighting (he calls it “near holy”) but who also believed in the importance of protecting the innocent and practicing kindness. One of the most beautiful things I have ever read is his following commandment:
Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.
In my life I have found it difficult to “be soft.” When I was young my sarcasm made people laugh, so I became more sarcastic (people would actually encourage me to “burn” them so they could join in the fun. Yikes). When I became a scholar it seemed like weakness or even stupidity to be soft because the level of study we were supposed to be engaged in made life hard, and if you were not a miserable martyr, you were “doing it wrong.” Pile on our culture’s desire to make commandments that others cannot follow, from the way we spend our money to clothes we wear to how we raise our children, and rather than be soft one must instead endeavor to always be on the defensive (spend our money in such a way that the Jones’s will wish they could keep up with us) and the offensive (thrash at others before they have a chance to look at you and yours).
Vonnegut had every reason to be “hard.” He had survived and participated in the bloody clean-up of one of the most devastating attacks on a civilian population in history. Yet, he knew that despite the darkness that existed in this fallen world of ours there was still beauty to behold and he encouraged others to look for it.
I recently read a quote that I feel combines with Vonnegut’s words to generate a way of living that is both counter-cultural and alien to my inborn nature: “It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.” This insight, made by G. K. Chesterton, rings truer than true in my mind. It is easy to be sarcastic; it is hard to be enthusiastic. It is easy to be guarded; it is hard to be vulnerable. It is easy to criticize; it is hard to create.
So, one of my goals for this year is to be softer. Certainly if God calls us to love him and to love others, there can be little room for sarcasm, suspicion, and criticism. Furthermore, when we practice softness toward other we may just find that we begin being gentle with ourselves, and in this culture of work more, spend more, and be more, wouldn’t it be revolutionary to practice a Godly love for Him, each other, and for ourselves?